Thursday, May 29, 2014

Luxury and Capitalism (Werner Sombart)

Finished last week reading the aforementiond book, as part of my research for my dissertation. It's my first Sombart, one of the fathers of Sociology, and I've found his style amusing, although somewhat lacking in rigor (he tends to provide some statistics and breakdowns of numbers -expenditure of some household, composition of the capital of some enterprise... without context, so it si difficult to assess how they fit in a bigger picture or how selective he has been in providing the data that supports his theses, omitting other pieces of information).

His main contention is twofold: Capitalism (or rather, the modern Western way of social organization) is a product of "luxury", understood as the production of highly valuable objects directed to the richest part of the population (what we call today "the 1%"), and luxury itself is a consequence of the "secularization of love", or the influence in tastes and patterns of consumption imposed by mistresses, thanks to their increased significance and social acceptance in the new urban environments enabled by the Renaissance (after the end of the Middle Ages).

The first contention is, in my humble opinion, not that off the mark, but probably not for the reasons Sombart presents. A developed luxury market is essential for the development of a capitalist society not from the producers perspective (because it requires high levels of capital and rationalization, not least because of the delays and uncertainties about payment from the dissolute nobility that initially comprises a significant portion of their clientele), but from the consumer's: sumptuary goods are required for the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality that has kept pushing everybody in the West (and now in the rest of the world) to work more in the market (where the sale of their time was rewarded with the means of acquiring material goods, as opposed to housework, study, familiy, and of course quaint relics of bygone times as prayer and contemplation).

As for the second (the importance of women, specially illegitimate partners, in the birth of that luxury markets), I found it much less convincing. The urban development of the XV Century is indeed a watershed, as to kickstart the competitive showoffs between the different citizens, regardless of class, it is first necessary that each should have notice of the consumption level of his/her neighbors, but I don't think women played such a determinant part. Indeed, the enhanced recognition of misstresses is but an additional consequence of increasing inequalities in wealth: all societies where a few males have commanded a disproportionate percentage of the total resources tend to gravitate towards polygamy, be it simultaneous or sequential, normally with the more or less open complicity of females (in any assortative mating order any female on the bottom half of the desirability hierarchy is better off engaged with a fraction of a male in the top half than with her corresponding mate in the bottom half...)

However, an interesting read with a few tasty morsels to think about more leisurly, clocking in at less than 200 pages is a good investment, and left me with the desire to attempr the heftier Modern Capitalism (have to find a decent English translation first)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Analysing the Power Clean

So I had a chance to videtape myself this Sunday doing power clean & jerks in the Gym, and although I have corrected some of the most glaring defects I identified in my last taped session, there is still a lot of work to do to be able to get to some half respectable weights.

Instead of linking the videos themselves, something any non talented human could do (and probably brag about them, even when the weights were modest -from 90 to 95 kg, that's between 200 and 210 pounds, for those of you metrically illiterate), I'm going to share a somewhat more refined analysis, which requires a minimal drawing ability (at least, the ability to translate what's seen in the videos in the venerable "stick figure" form):
The upper sequence is a depiction of what I was doing in March. Obviously, I straightened the knees waaaay too early, arrived at the power position (where the 2nd pull begins) with the trunk leaning too far forward and the arms slightly bent (another big no, no), then "whipped" back (not much up) and then caught the bar still too forward, typically crashing badly on my collarbones, which were always bruised (and with elbows too low, so all the weight had to be supported by wrists and elbows, which is another big no, no).

Inspired by the writings of coach Dan Bell I decided the cause was probably some incorrect position earlier than what I thought, and I found it in my starting position, with hips too high. I've been concentrating since then in starting with the hips lower (as flexibility is not much of a limiting factor now, I can do that easily, it provides for a more dynamic pull from the floor, also), hoping everything else would automatically improve.

The middle sequence is the visual translation of what I was still doing two days ago. The starting position is indeed much better, but I still straighten the knees too soon (right after the bar passes them), so the 2nd pull still consists mainly in a (somewhat shorter) whiplash backwards. The shorter whip explains why, although I feel faster and stronger I have difficulties moving weights that were easier for me to clean with my previous, uglier style: Having less space to accelerate the bar I probably have to rely more in the traps shrugging (inded, I feel the traps considerably more tired after my C&J's than I used to).

So now I see that what I have to focus on is keeping the legs bent for a little longer, so I reach the power position (and start the 2nd pull) in an even more upright position and, more important, with the legs able to significantly contribute to propelling the bar upwards (not forward). I have to start immediately bending the elbows (upward & outward) so the bar travels in as vertical a trajectory as possible, keeping it close to the chest so I can catch it w the elbows up, sparing the wrists, but that will be a second phase.

I'm happy to report that Yesterday I snatched (a day after updating my analysis of the clean, which most likely applies also to the snatch) I already focused on keeping knees bent in that move and felt a much, much more powerful 2nd pull. So let's see how well I'm able to apply this insight to the clean...

Friday, May 23, 2014

The five Dimensions I - Socioeconomic status and dominant reason

Those familiar with my ongoing dissertation (yep Carmen, that's essentially you :-)) know that I'm defining what I call the dominant reason of an era along five dimensions, each influenced by a parallel dimension adequate for describing the socioeconomic reality of the time. The concept of dominant reason is a neccessarily blurry one, as in any moderately sophisticated societies there are always many competing opinions vying for domination along any of the proposed dimensions, and the judgement of which one of those is predominant at any given moment is wont to be a matter of appreciation, influenced both by personal preference (which unavoidably biases us towarsd those positions we identify more with) and by the contemporary sources we have been more or less randomly exposed to (which are also just a fraction, the longer we go back in time the smaller, of all the journals, books, pamphlets, diaries, newspapers, reviews, periodicals, academic papers and the myriad of publications that in any civilization reflect the different positions with which the opinion leaders advance their cause).

That does not mean that the concept of dominant reason is useless (at a minimum, it helps us put in perspective the thought of each inhabitant of the civilization we are concerned with) or that we can define it pretty much as we wish, as with every historical analysis, tings can be teased out at the borders, as we may say, but through competent scholarship we should be able to reach a broadly agreed understanding on how things were. New materials can cause minor adjustments to our ideas, but that doesn't invalidate them, and the more information they draw on the more accurate they will be (in their core, as opposed to the borders mentioned before, which will always be more subject to review). The main motive I have to characterize that particular construct (the dominant reason of an era) along the five dimensions I have identified is to increase our awareness of its contingent nature. We (humans in general) tend to think that the way we reason is the only possible way, and that the conclusions we reach (about the ultimate nature of reality, the likelihood of a person as foundation of such ultimate nature, our own role in the grand scheme of things and to what extent that role is to be voluntaryly determined) are the only conclusions a well informed and intelligent being could reach.

By identifying the ways in which such modes of reasoning are dependant of socioeconomic variables which evolve independently of our desires, and even of ourselves being conscious of their evolution I hope to clarify and refine (or may be make more independent) the validity of the conclusions, through a critique which reveals its contingency and essentially historical nature (which means much of its prima facie plausibility is derived from its attunement with the way the society they are born in is organized to produce and exchange goods). It is important to set that critique aside from any position regarding the centuries old debate between cognitivism and relativism (in ethics) or between skepticism and again realism (this time in epistemology). I happen to be a cognitivist and a realist, so I do think there is a way things "really" are regarding that ultimate nature of reality, the possible existence of a God, our ability to "truly" act as free agents and the good or bad character of our actions, so this critique is not intended as a means to undermine our belief in each of those areas (as the revelation of the historical character of the traditional positions in each, through the different eras, is traditionally used). Rather, I intend to use the Critique as a means to reconduct the public debate (as my own contribution to the dominant opinion of the next age) towards positions I consider closer to the ttruth, as I consider the evolution of Western society in the last Century to have skewed that dominant opinion in mostly wrong directions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century (Part I)

So I finally finished Picketty's book. Yup, the one everybody is talking about, most likely without having read more than half of it (case in point: the review published by my admired Paul Krugman in The New York Review of Books, where he bemoans Picketty's lack of attention, when diagnosing the root causes of increasing income inequality in the USA, to the skyrocketing differences in salaries between the top managers and the rest of the labor force, differences which are duly noted and analyzed by the author in the third part of the book).

At a hefty 577 pages, plus 100 more pages of notes, give or take a few, it is a surprisingly light reading (most of the technical discussions, as well as the detailed data he uses, are conveniently parked in a devoted internet site, not to interfere with the brisk pace of the exposition), with a certain insouciance that makes it so more enjoyable. Sometimes the tone is markedly tongue-in-cheek, as when the author discusses the potential alternatives to substantially reduce the high levels of debt that (still recovering from aserious recession) afflict most advanced economies, but that doesn't normally substract from the seriousness (sometimes even eagerness) of the argument, and from the overall validity of the conclussions.

The only minor complain I may raise is the use and abuse of some professorial expressions that (and I do not know to what extent they are a defect of the translation, not having read the original yet), when accumulated in excess (like so many items of capital unduly gained by so many undeserving heirs) can make the reader cringe, as I cringed the third time I found a peremptory "make no mistake: blah blah blah" in so many pages. I may enjoy making my own mistakes, specially if they are so only in the eyes of such a learned economist and astute analyst of the current world tendencies.