Consumerism and Capitalism

A few months back, hanging out at a friend’s house with some beers, we engaged in one of those BS sessions that were so common in college but so rare these days.  We wandered all over the proverbial map, but a particular interesting and engaging topic was the relationship between capitalism and consumerism.

Those who know me likely realize that I’m pretty liberal and believe we should have more social programs to benefit society as a whole.  I basically feel that if my neighbor is better off, so will I be.  However, I also think that capitalism is overall a good system that encourages innovation and progress and allows people the best chance to better themselves.  Where I have real issues is with consumerism.

I basically think that consumerism — consuming for consuming sake — is bad.  And it seems that our economy is so dependent on this.  Consumer confidence is a key indicator of the state of the economy and our political leaders are always cajoling us to spend more.  The economy will pick up when people buy more, as that will spur manufacturing, and thus hiring.  It seems a vicious circle, with us buying stuff just so we can have jobs.  If we stop buying, the jobs disappear.

This consumerism also leads to companies producing products solely so we have something to buy.  They aren’t always good products and, even when they are, they are developed not because of any need, but just to have some new iteration for us to buy.  If Apple didn’t have a new gee-whiz gadget every few months, what would we buy?  Would they still be profitable?  Would their business model collapse?  What does the new iPhone do that the old one didn’t?  Do I really need it?

It seems no.  It seems like these products are produced almost exclusively so that they have something to sell and we have something to buy.  And that leads to more stuff that just gets obsolete and tossed into the land fill.  It all seems an engine to generate waste.

And this begs the question, are consumerism and capitalism fundamentally connected?  Can capitalism exist without consumers consuming?  If not, what is the basis of the capitalist market?

As might be expected, we didn’t answer this question.  We did think that maybe the paradigm could be shifted slightly if the full cost of a product, including its disposal, were included in its price.  If the cost of disposing of some object were included in the purchase price, rather than in either utility bills from the city or just ignored completely, maybe products would have to be designed that were meant to be durable, to have some lasting power, and thus the market would have to rely on other components rather than just consuming.  But, what those would be, I don’t know.

Travelling Thoughts: Poland

Way back in July, before Jaialdi, I went to Poland for the Computer Simulations of Radiation Effects in Solids (COSIRES) conference, held in Krakow (previous hosts of this conference have included Beijing, Richland WA, and Helsinki).  Thoughts on my trip (that I can remember… I really need to write these down when I’m there):

  • As I do more and more travel, I’m trying more and more to keep my trips shorter, both to help my family out as my wife works on the weekends, but also to see them more and minimize the time away from home.  So, I flew out late on a Saturday and returned on a Friday.  The flight passed over Chicago, hence the one photo.  This doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to see any sights, but fortunately COSIRES had an excursion that let me see a little.
  • Krakow is a nice older European city.  It supposedly sports the largest plaza of any city in Europe, or so I was told.  It has a majestic Cathedral in the center of the plaza, which we were going to check out until we learned that if you are just a tourist (and not there for prayer) they charge a fee to enter.  Having seen a lot of Cathedrals in Europe, I didn’t feel like paying the fee.  We did check out their big indoor market, which had lots of stalls selling a bit of everything, but mostly things geared toward tourists: jewelry, clothes, scarfs, and such.  There were a number of shops selling wooden toys, presumably hand made, and I got my daughter a wooden train.  And a ceramic bowl for my wife (I guess Poland is known for their ceramics?).  There were a lot of chess sets on sale too, for extremely cheap prices (a whole set that was reasonably sized — maybe 15 inches square — cost something like $15-20).
  • The only other thing I saw was during the conference excursion.  They took us to an old salt mine — the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — that has since been turned into a tourist attraction.  Which might sound a bit odd, but it was actually very interesting.  We climbed down wooden stairs that took us something like 150 meters or roughly 450 ft below the surface.  Overall, we ended up something like 300-400 meters underneath, maybe a bit over 1000 ft.  The place was amazing.  Lots of caverns and tunnels winding all around.  There are little displays showing how work and life was in the mine (which was a bit hokey, but ok).  The interesting thing is what they carved into the mountain.  There were chapels for worship, statues depicting various scenes (carved out of the salt), and big halls for entertaining and such.  There was a room/cavern dedicated to Copernicus, who I guess was heavily involved in mining at the time (besides being a very important astronomer).  As we wandered, we could see little particles floating in the air, which I think were just large water drops, large enough to see but small enough to float, with salt dissolved in them.  The conference dinner was held in a hall in the mine, which was done to look still a bit rough.  It was pretty neat to be dining deep underground like that.
  • The conference itself was good, with some nice discussions and possible new collaborations.  The organizers did a nice job and the setting, at one of the university buildings, was very nice. I pitched that we host the next one in 2012 in Santa Fe and that pitch was accepted.  So, work to be done.
  • I was able to sample a little of the local cuisine.  Being a carnivore, I focused on things like schnitzel which was very good.  Some things looked a bit odd, such as a bright pink soup that just struck me as an odd color for any food.

Travelling Thoughts: DC and Germany

In the end of September/beginning of October, I went first to DC for a meeting of all of the people funded by our funding agency in DOE and then on to Germany the following week to two conferences, first one on Multiscale Modeling of Materials held in Freiburg and the second on Nuclear Materials in Karlsruhe.  Just sharing some random thoughts from those trips.

  • The meeting in DC was held in a hotel way out in Rockville (ok, so not in DC proper, but in the outskirts).  My last night there, I went into town, catching the subway and walking around the mall.  I made stops at the Washington Monument (always impressive in its simplicity), the Jefferson Memorial (a favorite stop, as Jefferson, in spite of his flaws, is still a hero of mine), the Lincoln Memorial (which had way too many people as the AFL-CIO was setting up some rally there; but still great to see), and a very brief stop at the American History Museum (which didn’t really impress me all that much, but to be honest I only stayed 10 minutes).  I walked the length of the mall as the sun set, watching as the lights came on.  A very pretty view. Though DC is often a symbol to us of the problems of the country and the agendas of politicians so removed from our own interests, it is still a very powerful symbol of the greatness of our country, of the men who worked so hard to build a solid foundation on which all of this rests.
  • On the flight to Germany, I watched two movies (I usually use flights to catch up on things I haven’t had the chance to see): The Losers and Kick-Ass.  Both are based on comic properties.  I enjoyed both.  I’m a bit surprised at what they show on these flights, as it isn’t exactly private, and these are both reasonably violent movies.  The Losers was simply entertaining, with some nice stunts and an overall plot-line that was interesting.  The main villain was a little over the top, but there were enough twists to keep me interested.  Kick-Ass, on the other hand, I enjoyed greatly.  Maybe a little overly violent, but there is something in the story that is the ultimate teenage wish-fulfillment, of a guy just fighting back at the injustices around him.  The acting was good, the story was good.
  • It took us a little while to figure out the German train system.  Connected to the airport in Frankfurt was a massive train station, but we landed at Terminal 2 and it wasn’t completely clear where to go to catch the train.  Turns out we had to catch a bus to Terminal 1 and the train station was right there.  But, once we figured that out and where we had to transfer (to get to Freiburg we had to transfer in Karlsruhe), it went smoothly.  A nice train system is always very pleasant.  I understand the difficulties of building a comprehensive train network in the US, especially the West, but it sure would make some kinds of travel easier.
  • The first place I went for dinner in Freiburg had outdoor seating, with the tables spread out underneath a huge chestnut tree.  It was a bit surreal to have dinner, completely jet-lagged, with chestnuts falling all around us.  Every once in a while there would be a crack of a chestnut crashing down on the cobble stones.  Fortunately, none of them hit our food or beer.  The food, incidentally, was the German version of pizza, which as a crust with onions and cream cheese.  It was actually very tasty.
  • This was my second visit to Freiburg and it was just as charming as I remembered.  Freiburg is known for the Cathedral in the center of town, one of the few places to survive World War II without much damage.  They’ve channeled a river through the center of town, in some places about as wide as a lane in a road, in other places just a small stream maybe 1 foot wide and half a foot deep, but which runs along the streets through the town.  Children were playing in this stream, putting little toy boats and watching them float away.
  • Karlsruhe, on the other hand, was simply much bigger.  I had essentially two nights there, but they were spent with colleagues at dinner, so I didn’t get a chance to see anything.  The impression from others was that there wasn’t much to see.  I’ll have to go back some time and check for myself.
  • The conferences themselves were overall good.  I had some good discussions with old and new friends, with some potential new collaborations established.  These conferences are better and better experiences as I know more and more people.  I was only at the Karlsuhe conference for one day, so didn’t experience a whole lot.  The hotel was very nice, though maybe a bit vanilla, while that in Freiburg was plainer but because of that maybe more charming.  It had a nice restaurant for breakfast as well.  The Karlsruhe felt more like a chain that catered a bit more to business types.  Both of my talks went well and generated some discussion, which is all one can ask for, really.

Poker and the Pareto Principle

A while ago, I wrote about the Pareto Principle, which is an observation that, more or less regardless of economic structure, most of the wealth in most nations ends up in the hands of a few.  Even more specifically, about 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people.  Further, there are some simple computer simulations that can reproduce this distribution of wealth with some very simple rules — if you can only exchange wealth by either buying things from one another or investing in a random “stock market”, where all people have the same chance of returns, this 80/20 distribution comes out naturally.

So, what does this have to do with poker?  I spent way too much time playing poker on my Blackberry against the computer agents and discovered a strategy that leads to wins relatively quickly.  If you take some chances at the beginning, going all in, most of the time you will lose (probably about 4/5 times if there are a total of 5 players).  But, if you win, you quickly build up a chip-count that is higher than the new players.  You now have the ability to take risks that involve more money, but are overall smaller risks for you.  If you have $10K, you can bet $1K without much worry, but for a player that only has $1K-$2K, that is a huge portion of their funds, and they will be much more risk adverse as if they end up on the wrong side of the cards, they will lose almost everything.  So, by betting big, you can keep essentially force them to fold most of the time.  Of course, once in a while they will have a hand that is worth betting on, but so will you and you can outlast them.

The point is, by starting with a bigger pot than the other players, you can take bigger absolute, but smaller relative, risks that are large relative risks for them, forcing them to fold.  This concentrates more and more chips — wealth — in your hands relatively quickly.  It doesn’t take any skill, just some extra cash.

In real poker, of course, the dynamics of real players changes things.  But, this simple computer-controlled poker world seems to mimic the Pareto Principle and the computer simulations remarkably well, showing that with some initial luck that gets you ahead of the curve, you can quickly gain wealth without any more skills or “work” than the others.  The rich get richer, through no special effort of their own.  Something to think about.


Wow, time flies.  Way back in May, I went to a workshop on Solid-Solid Nucleation, which was held in Maui.  Actually, a colleague was invited, but he had a conflict and gave me the choice of representing him in Maui or Switzerland.  I chose Maui.  In any case, Lisa and Rose went with me.  We had a great time!  Rose and Lisa spent a lot of time on the beach while I was working.  Then, during the weekend, we went on the long drive on the north side of the island.  We checked out the village near our hotel (near Kaanapali).  The last day, before we caught our flight out (which left at 10:30 at night), we went up the volcano.  We were a little hesitant because of the long drive and the need to get back to catch the flight, but it sure was worth it.  I had expected to have a magnificent view of the island, maybe even see the other islands.  Instead, it was completely cloud-covered, but that actually made it more spectacular.  Standing there above the cloud line was a truly marvelous experience.  One of the best places I’ve ever visited.

I tried to do some panoramas of what we saw.  They didn’t turn out quite as nice as I hoped, but here they are.  A view of the volcano’s crater and another of the skyline around the crater.  The crater especially I couldn’t get to look as I hoped.  The contrast of the different images must not have matched right (and, to be honest, I didn’t feel like individually adjusting them).  This is as good as I could get with the program Hugin without a huge amount of effort.  At least it gives the idea.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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