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    Summer Rerun–Of Energy and Slavery

    Posted by David Foster on 19th September 2019 (All posts by )

    (edited, with updates)

    Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

    Christopher Hayes, writing at The Nation in 2014, asserted a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property.”He also asserts that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.

    His article reminded me of a few things.

    1) Sometime around 1900, a young PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company. But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000-kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison. The PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages. Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz, explaining that headlines need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”

    Steinmetz picked up a pencil, did a little calculating, and quickly determined that this one rotating machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million. To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: “I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”

    2) Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, visited a shipyard in New Bedford shortly after obtaining his freedom. Here are his comments on observing a cargo being unloaded:

    In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.

    3) Speaking of GE, Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become chairman of that company. To his biographer Ida Tarbell, he provided a vivid word-picture of what life had been like for a farm wife back in the slightly earlier times. Here, he remembers Monday–wash day:

    He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

    The reality is that non-human mechanical energy has been and continues to be a liberating force for humanity. A society which makes little use of nonhuman energy can maintain a small and wealthy aristocracy, but broad-based prosperity requires extensive use of nonhuman energy sources–and with today’s technological realities, a large portion of this energy needs to come from fossil fuels.

    Hayes does not seem to understand, or want to recognize, that the benefits of an energy source accrue not only to the companies and individuals who develop and own that energy source, but also to the people of the society at large. (The benefits of the coal and oil (and later natural gas) burned to power the turbines made by Owen Young’s company did not go only to the resource owners and to GE and the utility companies, but also to the farm housewives about whom he spoke.) At one point in the Hayes article he seems to reach the edge of this understanding — “Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants” — but does not really follow up on it. The thrust of his article is that the elimination of fossil fuels would require energy companies to give up something like $10 trillion in wealth. He does not focus on what the American people as a whole would have to give up.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Leftism, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Author Appreciation: Rose Wilder Lane

    Posted by David Foster on 17th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Rose Wilder Lane, born in 1886 in the Dakota Territory, was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Lane is best known for her writings on political philosophy and has been referred to as a “Founding Mother” of libertarianism; she was also a novelist and the author of several biographies.

    In her article Credo, published in 1936, she describes her political journey, beginning with the words:

    In 1919 I was a communist.

    She was impressed with the idealism of the individual Communists she met, and found their economic logic convincing. But when she visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, she became disillusioned. And, unlike many visitors to the USSR, she did not conclude that Communism was still a great idea but had just been carried out poorly; rather, she began to grasp the structural flaws with the whole thing.

    In Soviet Georgia, the villager who was her host complained about the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work, and predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow. At first she saw his attitude as merely “the opposition of the peasant mind to new ideas,” and undertook to convince him of the benefits of central planning. He shook his head sadly.

    It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.”

    This man’s insight prefigures Hayek’s writing about the role of knowledge in society, not to be published until 1944. His comments, her other observations while in the Soviet Union, and her own thinking about the way that economies actually work convinced her that:

    Centralized economic control over multitudes of human beings must therefore be continuous and perhaps superhumanly flexible, and it must be autocratic. It must be government by a swift flow of edicts issued in haste to catch up with events receding into the past before they can be reported, arranged, analyzed and considered, and it will be compelled to use compulsion. In the effort to succeed, it must become such minute and rigorous control of details of individual life as no people will accept without compulsion. It cannot be subject to the intermittent checks, reversals, and removals of men in power which majorities cause in republics.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Society, Europe, History, Leftism, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, USA | 6 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Book Review: Little Man, What Now?, by Hans Fallada

    Posted by David Foster on 14th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Little Man, What Now?

    (edited, with updates)

    I’ve often seen this 1932 book footnoted in histories touching on Weimar Germany; not having previously read it I had been under the vague impression that it was some sort of political screed. Actually it is a novel, and a good one. The political implications are indeed significant, but they’re mostly implicit rather than explicit.

    Johannes and Emma, known to one another as Sonny and Lammchen, are a young couple who marry when Lammchen unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Their world is not the world of Weimar’s avant-garde artists and writers, or of its risque-to-outright-degenerate cabaret scene. It is far from the world of a young middle-class intellectual like Sebastian Haffner, whose invaluable memoir I reviewed here. Theirs is the world of people at the absolute bottom of anything that could be considered as even lower-middle-class, struggling to hold on by their fingernails.

    When we first meet our protagonists, Sonny is working as a bookkeeper–he was previously a reasonably-successful salesman of men’s clothing, working for the kindly Jewish merchant Mr. Bergmann, but a pointless quarrel with Bergmann’s wife, coupled with a job offer from the local grain merchant (Kleinholz) led to a career change. Sonny soon finds that as a condition of continued employment he is expected to marry Kleinholz’s ugly and unpleasant daughter, never an appealing proposition and one which his marriage to Lammchen clearly makes impossible. Lammchen is from a working-class family: her father is a strong union man and Social Democrat who sees himself as superior to lower-tier white-collar men like Sonny.

    When Sonny and Lammchen set up housekeeping, their economic situation continually borders on desperate. Purchasing a stew pot, or indulging in the extravagance of a few bites of salmon for dinner, represents a major financial decision. An impulsive decision on Sonny’s part to please Lammchen by acquiring the dressing table she admires will have long-lasting consequences for their budget.

    The great inflation of Weimar has come and gone; the psychological damage lingers. Sonny and Lammchen’s landlady cannot comprehend what happened to her savings:

    Young people, before the war, we had a comfortable fifty thousand marks. And now that money’s all gone. How can it all be gone?…I sit here reckoning it up. I’ve written it all down. I sit here, reckoning. Here it says: a pound of butter, three thousand marks…can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?…I now know that my money’s been stolen. Someone who rented here stole it…he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing…how can fifty thousand have all gone?

    Inflation is no longer the problem, unemployment is. There are millions of unemployed, and those who do hold jobs are desperately afraid of losing them and will do anything to keep them.

    Both Sonny and Lammchen are limited and flawed people with many redeeming and even lovable attributes. Sonny, possibly as a result of upbringing by his cold and sleazy mother, is lacking in a sense of worth and in self-confidence–when he returns to the business of selling menswear, the store’s establishment of a quota system (apparently a radical innovation at the time) is so stressful to him as to greatly harm his sales performance. His devotion to Lammchen and to the coming baby (“the Shrimp”) is unshakable and keeps him going. Lammchen herself, despite her generally sweet nature, can on occasion be a irrational, unrealistic, and very unfair to Sonny, although these episodes are of short duration.

    In pursuit of possible employment for Sonny, they move to Berlin, where life definitely does not get any better. Germany’s vaunted social-welfare system does provide a certain amount of help for the couple, but there is a psychic cost. When they apply for the nursing-mother allowance to which Lammchen is clearly entitled when Shrimp is born, they find themselves enmeshed in a bureaucratic paperwork nightmare. They finally do get the money, but Lammchen is so upset by the experience that she resolves to vote Communist in the next election. (Yeah, that’ll help.) Sonny does receive compensation during his periods of unemployment, but this does little to ease his feeling of uselessness and fears for the future. After finally getting hired by Mandel’s Department Store, he passes a group of still-unemployed men:

    Pinneberg had the feeling, despite the fact that he was about to become a wage-earner again, that he was much closer to those non-earners than to people who earned a great deal. He was one of them, any day he could find himself standing here among them, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had no protection. He was one of millions.

    Despite the social safety net, despite a few helpful friends and acquaintances, the dominant feeling of Sonny and Lammchen is that they are utterly alone in the world, like children in a dark wood or like American pioneers on the great plains–but without the hope.

    Neither Sonny nor Lammchen is a very political person, but they have the strong feeling that “the system” is rigged against them. While Lammchen does make an anti-Semitic remark early in the book (“I’m not too keen on Jews”), neither she nor Sonny seems to be among the growing number who blame Germany’s Jews for their economic difficulties–indeed, Sonny is appalled when a Jewish businesswoman tells him of her mistreatment at the hands of Jew-haters. The couple’s (rather vague) political leanings are to the Left, and they attribute the source of their problems to the rich and the powerful generically. They have no faith in the political system or leadership.

    Ministers made speeches to him, enjoined him to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank and to vote for the constitutional party. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, according to the circumstances, but he didn’t believe what they said. Not in the least. His innermost conviction was: they all want something from me, but not for me.

    Of Lammchen’s political views, the author says:

    She had a few simple ideas: that most people are only bad because they have been made bad, that you shouldn’t judge anybody because you never know what you would do yourself, that the rich and powerful think ordinary people don’t have the same feelings as they do–that’s what Lammchen instinctively believed, though she hadn’t thought it out.

    Sonny is resolved to succeed in his sales job at Mandel’s department store, and is greatly helped by an older salesman, the very dignified Mr. Heilbutt, who possesses both practical sales skills and general life skills that Sonny has not yet developed. For the most part, though, the relationship among store employees is of a dog-eat-dog, knife-in-the-back nature, and some of the customers are very difficult–like the man who comes into the store accompanied by his wife AND his sister AND his mother-in-law, with vociferous opinions about each item from the first two women and a constant repetition of the complaint we-should-have-gone-to-a-different-store from the mother-in-law.

    When Sonny again becomes unemployed, this time for a protracted period, Lammchen is able to bring in a little money by doing sewing for more-affluent families, while Sonny takes on the role of a house-husband. The author implies that this situation has become common in Germany, as Lammchen asks:

    What d’you think, Mr Jachmann? D’you think it’s going to be like this from now on with the men at home doing the housework while the women work? It’s impossible.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Economics & Finance, Film, Germany, History | 4 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Are We Living at the Intersection of These Two Stories?

    Posted by David Foster on 12th September 2019 (All posts by )

    The first story is Robert Heinlein’s The Year of the Jackpot.  A consulting statistician with the unlikely name of Potiphar Breen observes that many strange social trends are on a strong upswing.  One such trend:  young women removing all their clothes in public.  Potiphar sees one such disrobing in process, shoos away the police, covers the girl with his raincoat, then takes her home and asks her why she did it.  She doesn’t know.

    Potiphar informs her that nine other girls have done the same thing, in Los Angeles alone, on that very day…and goes on to tell her that this is a small part of the overall pattern of increasing craziness that he is observing.  A man has sued an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife’s affections–and the judge is letting the suit be tried.  In another state, a bill has been introduced to repeal the laws of atomic energy–not the relevant statutes, but the natural laws concerning nuclear physics. Potiphar shows the girl (her name is Meade) the graphs on which he has plotted the outbreak of bizarre things over time, and notes that many different indicators, all with different cycles, are all converging in this very year.  Still, Meade wants to look at her disrobing episode on an individual basis:  “I want to know why I did what I did!”

    “I think we’re lemmings, Meade,” Potiphar says.  “Ask a lemming why he does it.  If you could get him to slow up his rush to death, even money says he would rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate.  But he does it because he has to–and so do we.”  When Meade tries to defend free will–“I know I have it–I can feel it”, Potiphar continues with another analogy:  “I imagine every little neutron in an atom bomb feels the same way.  He can go spung! or he can sit still, just as he pleases.  But statistical mechanics works out anyhow.  And the bomb goes off.”

    As Meade and Potiphar become romantically involved, Potiphar’s indices of bizarre behavior and events continue to climb. Transvestism by draft-dodgers has resulted in a mass arrest in Chicago and a gigantic mass trial–but the (male) prosecutor shows up in a pinafore.  At the All Souls Community Church of Springfield, the pastor has reinstituted ceremonial nudity.  Two weeks later, a hundred and nine other churches have announced the same policy.  California is suffering a major water crisis, but people continue watering their lawns as usual.  Hardly anyone is interested in the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions; all the excitement is about the revived Know-Nothing party.

    Foreign affairs, too, are disintegrating into chaos…topped off by a nuclear exchange.  Meade and Potiphar manage to survive, and Potiphar’s cycle charts seem to indicate that things will soon get better…(read the story to see how it comes out.)

    The fictional events of Heinlein’s Year of the Jackpot (set in 1952–it was written in 1947) don’t seem any more bizarre than the kind of headline stories that we are seeing every day in real-life:

    College students cry ‘racism’ when served ‘culturally-incorrect cuisine’ in the cafeteria

    The “Queen of YouTube, famous for eating cereal out of a bathtub of milk that she was bathing in , is granted interviews by both the sitting President and the leading democratic contender

    Woman loses her job and is threatened with having her children taken away, because she let her three sons (11,9,and 5) play by themselves in a playground next to her apartment building.

    Seven-year-old boy suspended from school for chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun

    Previously-male person selected as Woman of the Year

     

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, France, Human Behavior, Leftism, USA | 7 Comments »

    Rerun–The Perfect Enemy

    Posted by David Foster on 11th September 2019 (All posts by )

    (9/11 seems an appropriate date for a rerun of this post)

    Suppose you wanted to create a perfect enemy. An enemy so vile that its evil would be recognized by almost everyone. An enemy that would inspire people to come together in order to ensure its defeat.

    To be more specific: suppose you were a screenwriter with the assignment of creating a suitable villain-organization for a major motion picture. The marketing plan for this movie suggests that it will be marketed primarily to a certain demographic and that, hence, your villain-organization should be particularly appalling to members of that demographic. The demographic in question consists of people who are affluent, highly educated (college with at least some postgraduate education), not particularly religious, and who consider themselves politically liberal or “progressive.” The plot of the movie demands that the audience must see the necessity for Americans–of many beliefs, occupations, and social backgrounds–to come together in order to defeat the enemy.

    Oh, and one other thing. The year in which you are given this assignment is 1999.

    You will clearly want your enemy to share many of the characteristics of the Nazis–disrespect for human life, wanton cruelty, a love of apocalyptic violence. But to make the enemy particularly awful from the standpoint of your target demographic, you will want to emphasize certain aspects of its belief system.

    Members of your demographic usually have strong beliefs about women’s rights. So, your enemy must have a particularly disrespectful belief set, and a violent behavior pattern, towards women. Similarly, your demographic is generally favorable toward gay rights…so the enemy must advocate and practice the suppression, torture, and killing of gays. Your demographic is generally nonreligious and often hostile toward religion…so, make sure the enemy includes a large element of religious fanaticism. Members of your demographic talk a lot about “the children”–so make sure your enemy uses children in particularly cruel ways.

    Had you created such an enemy for your screenplay in 1999, you would have surely felt justified in assuming that it would achieve its intended reaction with your target demographic.

    It didn’t work out that way, though.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Film, Iran, Religion, Terrorism | 5 Comments »

    Creativity, Curiosity, and Political Philosophy

    Posted by David Foster on 10th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Roger Kimball was struck by a news story noting that while Bernie Sanders spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, he never made any attempt to visit the dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Vermont.

    “Some comments about that story attribute Mr. Sanders’s negligence to ideology, as if he, being a fan of the Soviet Union, made a silent protest by ignoring the famous anti-Soviet figure in his midst. But I think the deeper reason for his neglect was a quality of the socialist or communist or revolutionary sensibility that is too little remarked. I mean its ingrained, indeed its programmatic, lack of curiosity about other people.

    The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, in a thoughtful anatomy of the French Revolution, is one of the few people to underscore this feature of the totalitarian habit of mind. “This absence of curiosity,” Mr. Scruton notes, “is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness.””

    Read the whole thing.

    Richard Fernandez has related thoughts dealing with uncertainty and the future.

    “From the point of view of information theory, the future is an alien signal. But unlike the characters in the movie, the Chinese, Russian, European, and American elites are unwilling to start at a point of maximum entropy. Rather, they want to control the future and load the dice by constraining it with their legacy theories. That is because the Woke, EU, Chinese Communist Party, and the Kremlin are convinced they already know the future and the only difficulty is in getting the recalcitrant deplorables to go along.”

    Fernandez makes the important point that “Real discovery consists not in what is forgotten or predicted, but in coming upon the never imagined.”

    There is no place for the watchmaker among the gears of the watch.

    Posted in Big Government, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism | 8 Comments »

    Summer Rerun– Video Review: A French Village

    Posted by David Foster on 5th September 2019 (All posts by )

    This series, set in the (fictional) French town of Villeneuve during the years of the German occupation and afterwards, is simply outstanding – one of the best television series I have ever seen.  The program ran from 2009-2017 on French TV, and all the seasons are now available in the US, with subtitles.

    Daniel Larcher is a physician who also serves as deputy mayor, a largely honorary position. When the regular mayor disappears after the German invasion, Daniel finds himself mayor for real. His wife Hortense, a selfish and emotionally-shallow woman, is the opposite of helpful to Daniel in his efforts to protect the people of Villaneuve from the worst effects of the occupation while still carrying on his medical practice. Daniel’s immediate superior in his role as mayor is Deputy Prefect Servier, a bureaucrat mainly concerned about his career and about ensuring that everything is done according to proper legal form.

    The program is ‘about’ the intersection of ultimate things…the darkest evil, the most stellar heroism….with the ‘dailyness’ of ordinary life, and about the human dilemmas that exist at this intersection. Should Daniel have taken the job of mayor in the first place?…When is it allowable to collaborate with evil, to at least some degree, in the hope of minimizing the damage? Which people will go along, which will resist, which will take advantage? When is violent resistance…for example, the killing by the emerging Resistance of a more or less random German officer…justified, when it will lead to violent retaliation such as the taking and execution of hostages?

    Arthur Koestler has written about ‘the tragic and the trivial planes’ of life. As explained by his friend, the writer and fighter pilot Richard Hillary:

    “K has a theory for this. He believes there are two planes of existence which he calls vie tragique and vie triviale. Usually we move on the trivial plane, but occasionally in moments of elation or danger, we find ourselves transferred to the plane of the vie tragique, with its non-commonsense, cosmic perspective. When we are on the trivial plane, the realities of the other appear as nonsense–as overstrung nerves and so on. When we live on the tragic plane, the realities of the other are shallow, frivolous, frivolous, trifling. But in exceptional circumstances, for instance if someone has to live through a long stretch of time in physical danger, one is placed, as it were, on the intersection line of the two planes; a curious situation which is a kind of tightrope-walking on one’s nerves…I think he is right.”

    In this series, the Tragic and the Trivial planes co-exist…day-to-day life intermingles with world-historical events. And the smallness of the stage…the confinement of the action to a single small village….works well dramatically, for the same reason that (as I have argued previously) stories set on shipboard can be very effective.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in France, Germany, History, Human Behavior, War and Peace | 6 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd September 2019 (All posts by )

    (This is a 3-part series, link to next post is at the end)

    Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor.  The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”

    At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances.  Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame.  A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames.  Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.

    And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:

    The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied.  It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.

    Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 24 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society

    Posted by David Foster on 1st September 2019 (All posts by )

    Here is an intriguing book concerned with the exponential advances in technology and the impact thereof on human society.  The author believes that the displacement of human labor by technology is in its very early stages, and sees little limit to the process.  He is concerned with how this will affect–indeed, has already affected–the relationship between the sexes and of parents and children, as well as the ability of ordinary people to earn a decent living.  It’s a thoughtful analysis by someone who clearly cares a great deal about the well-being of his fellow citizens.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Capitalism, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Society, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Lewis vs Haldane

    Posted by David Foster on 31st August 2019 (All posts by )

    (Seems appropriate for a rerun, giving the present growth of positive feelings about Socialism in this country)

    J B S Haldane was an eminent British scientist (population genetics) and a Marxist. C S Lewis was…well, you probably already know who C S Lewis was.

    In 1946, Haldane published an article critiquing a series of novels by Lewis known as the Ransom Trilogy, and particularly the last book of the series, That Hideous Strength. Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years. All this may sound ancient and estoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.

    To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength, which is the only book of the trilogy that I’ve read: Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE–the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation–having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems. (Unbelievably, today the real-life British agency which establishes rationing policies for healthcare is also called NICE.) In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. It also turns out that the main reason NICE wanted to hire Mark is to get control of his wife, Jane (maiden name: Tudor) who has clairvoyant powers. The NICE officials want to use Jane’s abilities to get in touch with the magician Merlin and to effect a junction between modern scientific power and the ancient powers of magic, thereby bringing about the enslavement of mankind and worse. Jane, though, becomes involved with a group which represents the polar opposite of NICE, led by a philology professor named Ransom, who is clearly intended as a Christ-figure. The conflict between NICE and the Ransom group will determine the future of humanity.

    A brilliantly written and thought-provoking book, which I highly recommend, even if, like me, you’re not generally a fan of fantasy novels.  I reviewed it here.

    With context established, here are some of the highlights of the Lewis/Haldane controversy:

    1)Money and Power. In his article, Haldane attacks Lewis for the latter’s refusal to absolutely condemn usury, and celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union. Here’s part of Lewis’s response:

    The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on
    money. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is
    that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of
    the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and
    the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most
    members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to
    win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too
    bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in
    the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to
    care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by
    cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? This
    lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons
    why I cannot share Professor Haldane’s exaltation at the banishment
    of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have
    already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it
    was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If
    Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But
    where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his
    place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to
    keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all
    men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in
    the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion
    insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the
    state of society is such that money is the passport to all these
    prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But
    when the passport changes, the desires will remain.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Conservatism, Deep Thoughts, Leftism, Religion, Science, Society | 21 Comments »

    The Ideological Turing Test

    Posted by David Foster on 26th August 2019 (All posts by )

    The Turing test is a means of assessing whether an automated system is truly intelligent by testing its ability to simulate an actual human being in conversation…the test to be conducted via terminals, over a communications link. Here’s an excerpt from Alan Turing’s own example of a hypothetical conversation:

    Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

    Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

    Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

    Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

    Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

    Witness: In a way.

    Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

    Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

    At a considerably lower literary level, quite a few automated telephony systems today make an attempt to convince their targets that they are dealing with an actual human being, at least for a few seconds.

    The ideological Turing test…the term was invented by Bryan Caplan, following some comments by Paul Krugman…refers to an individual’s ability to accurately state opposing political and ideological views.  Caplan quotes John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

    My observation is that neither side in America’s current political divisions is over-endowed with people capable of passing the ITT.  Paul Krugman asserted, unsurprisingly, that liberals do it better:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Elections, Human Behavior, Marketing, Politics, Tech | 30 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Jeff Sypeck’s Gargoyle Poems

    Posted by David Foster on 25th August 2019 (All posts by )

    …which were inspired by the gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral, were published in book form in 2012.  I was reminded of these poems by the dreadfully destructive fire at Notre Dame.

    The book includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques. These poems are really good…one of my favorites is  A Mother Consoles her Daughter.

    You can get the book via the usual on-line sources, the National Cathedral Store, or directly from Jeff’s blog, at this page.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Christianity, History, Poetry | No Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

    Posted by David Foster on 20th August 2019 (All posts by )

    This rerun of an earlier post (slightly reworked) was inspired by a comment by MCS at this post:

    We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion.

    Neal Stephenson wrote In the Beginning was the Command Line, a strange little book which would probably be classified under the subject heading “computers.”  While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.

    Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.

    As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

    The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

    In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

    …a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

    The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

    The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

    Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

    I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Blogging, Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Film, Human Behavior, Internet, Obama, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

    Posted by David Foster on 17th August 2019 (All posts by )

    (This post is now an August perennial, in honor of the beginning of the new school year–indeed, many kids have already been in school for 2 or 3 weeks)

    Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now at Lazard, thinks it would be a good idea to cut back on summer school vacations for kids, arguing that this would both improve academics and reduce obesity.

    I’m with Jeremy LottBut to look at the vast wasteland that is American public education — the poor teaching, the awful curriculum, the low standards, the anemic achievement, the institutional resistance to needed reform — and say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind.

    I wrote about the war on summer vacation back in 2006, after stopping at a store in Georgia on the first day of August and discovering that this was the first day of school for the local children.

    The truth is, most public K-12 schools make very poor use of the time of their students. They waste huge proportions of the millions of hours which have been entrusted to them–waste them through the mindless implementation of fads and theories, waste them through inappropriate teacher-credentialing processes, waste them through refusal to maintain high standards of performance and behavior.

    When an organization or institution proves itself to be a poor steward of the resources that have been entrusted to it, the right answer is not to give it more resources to waste.

    Orszag and similar thinkers seem to have no concept that good things can happen to children’s development outside of an institutional setting. Plenty of kids develop and pursue interests in science, literature, art, music…plus, there is plenty to be learned simply by interacting with friends in an unstructured environment.

    Would the world be better off if Steve Wozniak and Jeri Ellsworth..to name only two of many, many examples..had their noses held constantly to the school grindstone rather than having time to develop their interests in electronics?

    Lewis E Lawes, who was warden of Sing Sing prison from 1915 to 1941, wrote an interesting book titled Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. The title refers to the aggregate lengths of the sentences of the men in the prison at a typical particular point in time.

    Lawes:

    Twenty-five hundred men saddled with an aggregate of twenty thousand years! Within such cycles worlds are born, die, and are reborn. That span has witnessed the evolution of the intelligence of mortal man. And we know that twenty thousand years have seen nations run their courses, perish, and give way to their successors. Twenty thousand years in my keeping. What will they evolve?

    Following the same approach, the aggregate length of the terms to be spent in K-12 schools by their current students is more than 600,000,000 years. What proportion of this time is actually used productively?

    And how many of the officials who supervise and run the public schools, and the ed-school professors who influence their policies, think about this 600,000,000 years in the same serious and reflective way that Lawes thought about the 20,000 years under his supervision? Some do, of course, but a disturbing percentage of them seem to be simply going through the bureaucratic motions.

    And the politicians and officials of the Democratic Party, those who talk so much about their devotion to Education and The Children, are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.

    Posted in Big Government, Crime and Punishment, Education, Politics, USA | 6 Comments »

    Murder, Suicide, and Society

    Posted by David Foster on 12th August 2019 (All posts by )

    A collection of worthwhile…if not very cheerful…links from Don Sensing.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Religion, Society, Terrorism, USA | 13 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 5th August 2019 (All posts by )

    Anthony Kronman, a professor of law at Yale, writes about how an obsessive focus by academia on ‘diversity’ (as that term is now used) is destructive of individuality and the search for truth.

    Victor Davis Hanson observes that the Robert Muller’s “dream team,” loaded with Ivy Leaguers, was expected to devastate Trump’s legal team, which had scarcely a Harvard man or woman in sight.

    Electricity problems in Sweden – looks like these are being driven by the closing of nuclear plants, the increased reliance upon wind, and the failure to build adequate transmission capacity to collect the wind turbines with the loads.

    Posted in Civil Society, Education, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Law, Leftism | 20 Comments »

    Summer Rerun — Book Review: Life in a Soviet Factory

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd August 2019 (All posts by )

    Bitter Waters: Life And Work In Stalin’s Russia by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov

    A fascinating look at the Soviet economic system in the 1930s, as viewed from the front lines of that system.

    Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was released from a labor camp in 1935, and was fortunate to find a job as a book-keeper in a sawmill. When the factory manager, Grigory Neposedov (a pseudonym) was assigned to run a larger and more modern factory (also a sawmill), he took Gennady with him.

    Although he had almost no formal education, Neposedov was an excellent plant manager. As Gennady describes him:

    He was unable to move quietly. Skinny and short, he moved around the plant so quickly that he seemed to be running, not walking. Keeping pace with the director, the fat chief mechanic would be steeped in perspiration…He rarely sat in his office, and if he needed to sign some paper or other, you had to look for him in the mechanic’s office, in the shops, or in the basement under the shops, where the transmission belts and motors that powered the work stations were located…This enthusiasm of his, this ability to lose himself completely in a genuine creative exertion, to give his all selflessly, was contagious. It was impossible to be around Neposedov without being infected by his energy; he roused everyone, set them on fire. And if he did not succeed in shaking someone up, it could unmistakely be said that such a person was dead or a complete blob.

    With his enthusiasm and dedication to his factory, Neposedov comes across almost as a Soviet version of Hank Reardon (the steel mill owner in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), with this difference–Nepodesov could throw himself as enthusiastically into bureaucratic manipulation as into his technical and leadership work. All of his skills would be needed to make this factory a success.

    Although the sawmill had modern equipment, it was producing at only a fraction of its design capacity. One of the problems was energy: the plant was powered by a 200HP steam engine, and whoever had built the place had spent almost all of the budget on other equipment, leaving very little for the boiler. The original boiler that came with the plant turned out to be useless, and was replaced with a salvaged boiler..this worked, but was not in good shape and produced only about half the steam needed to run the engine–and the plant–at full power.

    At this point in history, and in this particular corner of the Soviet economy, the amount that was available to be paid to workers was strongly related to the output of a plant. And workers at this sawmill were becoming increasingly desperate, on the point of actual starvation. Neposedov, aided by Gennady, pusued a three-part program of improvement: (1)fix the boiler, (2)improve the workflow (as we would now call it) within the plant, and (3)put in place an incentive system for the workers.

    New “pipes” for the boiler were somehow obtained (I think “pipes” in this context refers to boiler flues) and the workflow was continuously analyzed and improved. The most interesting part of the story, though, deals with the incentive program. The plant manager apparently had discretion to put such programs in place as long as he could pay for them out of increased output. (As the book describes it, there were extensive accounting systems in place throughout the Soviet economy–indeed, Lenin had once gone so far as to say “Socialism is accounting.” The accounting seems a bit similar to what you would find in a multidivisional American company with extensive intracompany transactions.) The incentive system that Gennady designed for this sawmill was based on very sharp pay increases for the workers when production exceeded target–so that, for example, you could double your pay by producing only 25% over target. (Actually, the plan paid collectively by group and by shift, rather than on an individual basis.)

    The incentive plan, together with the repaired steam boiler, resulted in very high production–140%, then 160% of target–and correspondingly high pay for the workers. Gennady had some nervous moments when he feared he had made a mistake in the calculations and the cost of the additional wages would exceed the amount generated by the new production….a mistake like this could easily have landed him back in Siberia, or worse. But it turned out that the new system was indeed sustainable.

    The local Communist Party leadership, while pleased with the increased production, was disturbed that the propaganda buzzwords of the day were not being implemented. “Socialist competition” was hot at the time, and the Party organizer insisted on competition at the individual worker levels, not just the group and shift level.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Leftism, Management, Russia | 4 Comments »

    More Heinlein Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 28th July 2019 (All posts by )

    I recently posted a brief review of The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 story about the first lunar trip, and thought some reviews of other early Heinlein stories might be of interest as well.  (For those who haven’t yet read these stories, I’ve tried to minimize spoilers.)

    Let There be Light (published in 1940).  Archie Douglas, a scientist, tries to pick up a very attractive woman who is dining by herself. She politely turns him down, but it soon transpires that she is the very same Doctor M L Martin with whom Douglas has a scientific meeting scheduled.  (M L = Mary Lou.)  Initially, Archie refuses to believe that a woman so attractive could have such outstanding scientific credentials, but he is soon convinced, and the two begin a research collaboration that quickly develops romantic overtones.

    Their effort initially focuses on the development of electroluminscent light panels, making use of Mary Lou’s earlier research on the firefly–but when Archie’s factory-owner father faces the prospect of being run out of business by discriminatory electric rates imposed by the power cartel, the pair decides to reverse the process and efficiently create electricity from sunlight.  They succeed…but the power cartel is not happy about the prospect of cheap distributed generation and will do anything to keep them from bringing their technology to market.

    A fun story, with lots of snappy banter between the pair.

    The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940).  Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Reno–San Diego roadtown, is explaining the rolling-road technology and its social/economic impact to an Australian visitor.  These ‘roadtowns’ are huge multistrip conveyor belts:  passengers can get on at any point and then, depending on the length of their journey, move from the initial 5mph strip all the way over to the 100mph strip.  More conducive to intermediate stops than the Elon Musk approach!

    The fast strip is wide enough to allow shops and restaurants to be located on it…Gaines and his visitor are conversing while having lunch at Jake’s Steak House. (“To dine on the fly makes the miles roll by.”)  The Australian (who is Transport Minister of that country) is impressed with what he has seen and what Gaines tells him about its usefulness and social impact–but he demurs politely: “”isn’t it possible that you may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing your whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?”

    Gaines responds that the potentially-serious reliability issue is not with the machinery, but with the men who tend it: “Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations…But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike: with this important difference:  It takes a majority of the population fired by a real feeling of grievance, to create a general strike, but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.”

    “We had just one strike on the roads, back in ”sixty-six.  It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real abuses–but it mustn’t happen again.”

    Gaines is confident that there will be no such problems in the future, he tells his guest: the engineers who manage the road’s operation are now part of a military-like organization with high esprit de corps:  indeed, they are graduates of the United States Academy of Transport, and even have their own song, to the tune of “Those caissons go rolling along.”

    Just then, Gaines’ coffee lands in his lap.  The strip has abruptly begun slowing to a stop.  He soon discovers that members of his workforce have fallen under the spell of an ideology called Functionalism, which holds that people who do the most critical work in a society should have political power to match. And, what is more, the primary instigator of the rebellion is…Gaines’ own deputy.

    I’m not sure whether the technology would really be workable–with strips running at speeds up to 100mph, it would seem that the resulting winds would create an insoluble problem, even with Heinlein’s proposed solution (partitions to isolate air flow between the different strips)  But it’s a good story, and points out a real potential issue with critical infrastructure operated by key, hard-to-replace personnel.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Energy & Power Generation, Society, Space, Tech | 19 Comments »

    Well, That’s Interesting

    Posted by David Foster on 25th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Tulsi Gabbard is suing Google for $50MM and also seeking injunctive relief.

    Link

    The article at the link includes the complaint.

    Posted in Advertising, Business, Civil Liberties, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd July 2019 (All posts by )

    Haven’t posted one of these for while, so here are a few links I found interesting…

    Tom Wolfe on the space race as a combat of individual champions in the ancient style.

    Zoning rules as an enemy of shade.

    Sarah Hoyt on the human tendency to assume that the conditions of the past still apply.  (Even the purely imagined and stereotypical conditions of the past, in some cases, I’d add)

    Interesting ‘blog’ by Holly (Maths Geek).  (Actually a Twitter feed…people who are on Twitter would IMO do well to mirror all content onto a traditional blog unless they are willing to have their work at the mercy of Jack Dorsey and his minions)

    Despite all the concern and hype about Russian hacking, China’s spying and influence within our borders are rising.  See also this case of a former GE engineer and a businessman charged with stealing turbine technology, with the “financial and other support” of the Chinese government.  Additionally, see my post So, really want to talk about foreign intervention?

    Posted in Big Government, Blogging, China, Deep Thoughts, Feminism, History, Human Behavior, Science, Space, Tech | 8 Comments »

    The First Trip to the Moon, as Envisaged by Robert Heinlein

    Posted by David Foster on 19th July 2019 (All posts by )

    … in his 1950 story, The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Given the upcoming anniversary of the actual first moon landing, I thought it would be fun to go back and take a look at this fictional version of the first trip.

    In Heinlein’s story, the first manned lunar landing is not government-driven. Rather, it is the achievement of entrepreneur/industrialist Delos D Harriman, known to his friends and associates as ‘D.D.”  Having long dreamed of going to the moon, he finally decides that the time is right.

    Harriman-known as “our bad boy” to his fellow Directors of the power cartel–finds his colleagues reluctant to invest in a venture whose costs are so high and whose returns are uncertain.  Even his long-time partner, George Strong, fails to see either financial return or emotional appeal in the effort:

    George, isn’t there anything in your soul but discounts and dividends? Didn’t you ever sit with a girl on a soft summer night and stare up at the Moon and wonder what was there?

    Yeah, I did once.  I caught a cold.

    Nevertheless, Strong supports the project out of loyalty, and some tycoons support it because supersalesman Harriman is able to convince them that there is money for them in the project–or loss, if they decline to participate.  Much of the story is devoted to Harriman’s strategies for fund-raising, some of which skirt–or go over–the lines of legality and ethics. He implies to the Moka-Coka company, for example, that another soft drink maker plans to turn the Moon into a massive billboard (using a rocket to scatter black dust on the surface in patterns), and suggests that the public-spirited Moka company might like to invest in the project to preclude such use of the moon by their rival.

    As an old real-estate operator, Harriman is very focused on the question:  who owns the moon?…he argues that the question is indeed meaningful, based on real-estate doctrine that a property owner owns a wedge going down to the center of the earth and extending up to infinity. He doesn’t want lunar ownership vested in any country, even the US, because he thinks it would result in world war (given the moon’s value as a rocket-bomb base), and he does want it vested in his operation, for reasons of profitability as well as protection from bad uses.  His legal maneuvering, involving the UN as well as all countries over which the path of the moon passes–and a mix of non-profit, for-profit, and anonymous corporations–is intricately described.

    For the technology of the moon trip, Harriman had hoped to use a nuclear fuel which has been applied to power generation, but it proves too unstable for use in a rocket–so well-known chemical rocket technology must be employed instead (rockets are commonly used for long-distance transportation in the era where this story is set).  On the advice of Harriman’s chief engineer, Andrew Ferguson, the most technically-qualified man in rocketry, Bob Coster, is hired to run the project…but he evidently lacks sufficient management experience and is soon overwhelmed.  Harriman tries to help him out:

    “Top administration ain’t engineering, and maybe I can show you a few tricks there, if you’ll let me….Top bossing is like sex; until you’ve had it, you don’t know about it.”  Harriman had the mental reservation that if the boy would not take advice, he would suddenly be out of a job, whether Ferguson liked it or not.

    Although the story does deal with the technical aspects of the moon trip, that is not its primary focus…it is really a “business romance”, as Colby Cosh called it. “The Man Who Sold The Moon” emphasizes the financial difficulties, deals, the marketing, and the interpersonal stresses involved in the project–even Harriman’s wife is strongly opposed to his pursuit of his dream.   There are endless angles for the raising of money developed by Harriman and his friends, even soliciting contributions from children.

    The “man who sold the moon” tag becomes literal when, inspired by stories of the Florida land boom–“sometimes a parcel would change hands a dozen time before anyone got around to finding out that the stuff was ten-foot deep in water”–Harriman suggests selling lots on the moon itself:

    “We can offer bargains better than that–an acre, a guaranteed dry acre, for maybe ten dollars–or a thousand acres at a dollar an acre.  Who’s going to turn down a bargain like that?  Particularly after the rumor gets around that the Moon is believed to be loaded with uranium?”

    “Is it?”

    “How should I know?  When the boom sags a little we will announce the selected location of Luna City–and it will just happen to work out that the land around the site is still available for sale.  Don’t worry, Saul, if it’s real estate, George and I can sell it.  Why, down in the Ozarks, wheter the land stands on edge, we used to sell both sides of the same acre.”

    Comparisons between Harriman and Elon Musk come readily to mind–see the Colby Cosh article–though I don’t think Musk has been credibly accused of anything as far over the line as several of Harriman’s maneuvers.  It has also been suggested that Harriman’s name, and some aspects of his character, are owed to the railroad builder Edward Henry Harriman.

    I don’t think the date of the first lunar landing is mentioned in the story itself, but it has been placed–based on Heinlein’s future history timeline and on other stories–in 1978.  So real life beat out science fiction, at least from a date standpoint, by nine years.

    Could it have really happened that way–the first moon trip not via a gigantic government/corporate program piggybacking off of military missile technology, but rather by a private/corporate venture?  Given the vast amounts of money spent on the Apollo program and its predecessors–certainly much more than the fictional Harriman and his tycoon friends could have raised–it may seem impossible.  But would it really have been?

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Civil Society, Space, Tech, USA | 30 Comments »

    Fear of Freedom?

    Posted by David Foster on 16th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Stuart Schneiderman links to an article by a therapist who has a lot of experience working with millennials

    On any given day, a handful of millennials will come into my office and express their most pressing concerns: “I’m worried I’ll never make enough money to retire.” “I feel like a failure.” “I don’t know if I’m setting up my adult life the right way.”

    But the complaint they bring up the most? “I have too many choices and I can’t decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?”

    Now, I think that ‘generational’ explanations of social phenomena should be taken with multiple carloads of salt:  individual differences are IMO much more significant than generational differences.  And the people this therapist has been working with are not just millennials, but San Francisco area millennials.  Still, this pushback against having too many choices is unpleasantly reminiscent of the young German who was quoted as saying, shortly before the outbreak of World War II: “We Germans are so happy.  We are free of freedom.”

    To the extent that this phenomenon is real and is general, I would suspect several factors of being implicated. Specifically:

    ***The focus on “self-esteem building”, which seems to have the effect of producing people whose self-esteem is brittle and cannot withstand failure or contradiction.

    ***The trend toward child-raising in organized group settings…usually for-profit organized group settings…which may tend to create more orientation toward group conformity and less individuality than the more traditional “artisanal” at-home child raising.

    ***Increasing years of schooling, which can delay growing up.  Peter Drucker observed that when you’re in school, it’s all about you, unlike the working world where it’s all about doing things that are of value to others.  (FWIW, Drucker also said he observed striking levels of immaturity in many medical students because of this factor.)

    Anecdotal evidence only, but I have observed that people with many years of education–specifically, people with graduate degrees–are often reluctant to try new approaches to things.  Whether it’s an MBA or a Masters in Computer Science, they often want to stick close to the paradigms they were given in the classroom.  It would be interesting for someone to systematically study the relationship between education and mental rigidity.

    ***Finally, there is general social change and disorganization.  Stuart writes:  “Back in the day, when society was organized and where people understood their duties and obligations, these decisions were far less difficult and far less onerous”…the decisions were less onerous, but of course many people felt constrained–and often were constrained–in ways they did not want to be.

    Someone writing in an aviation magazine observed that “if you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”  In a society, the equivalent of the POH is the aggregate of laws, customs, and implicit expectations that guide behavior.  There is no doubt that any society’s POH needs constant updating, and sometime major changes–but when major changes do occur, they will be disorienting to many people, and it seems that a nontrivial number of them will react by wishing for more constraints.

    Some people thrive as test pilots–either of aircraft or in a societal setting–but many do not, including many people who would be perfectly adequate or even excellent pilots in a more-defined setting.

    One of the major problems we have in America today is that so many of the people who have taken it upon themselves to totally rewrite the societal POH are people who are lacking in practical experience, historical knowledge, and ‘skin in the game.’  To continue the aviation analogy, it is as if a POH was rewritten by people who had no background in aeronautical engineering, no experience or minimal experience in flying aircraft, and (in many cases) absolutely no intent of either flying or flying in those aircraft being operated in conformity with their documents.

    What proportion of the people in a society can lose belief in the value of individual freedom before they destroy that freedom for everyone, including those who do value it, and how close are we to that point?

     

     

    Posted in Big Government, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, USA | 28 Comments »

    Perception and…

    Posted by David Foster on 14th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Culture?  Language?  Genetics?

    Alison Gopnik, writing in the WSJ, discusses an interesting experiment on problem solving in very young children which was run by two researchers at UC San Diego, following on to research in which Gopnik was herself involved.  Children of various ages were shown a machine that lights up when you put a block of a certain color or shape on it.  “Even toddlers can easily figure out that a green block makes the machine go while a blue block doesn’t.”

    The researchers wondered:  what if the test was of the relationship between objects..say, two square blocks of the same color made the machine light up, but not two blocks of different colors?

    For American children, 18-month-old children had no trouble figuring out that the relationship between the objects was the key thing.  But older American children, 3-year-olds, did worse at the relationship test than did their younger counterparts.  For Chinese children, however, the fall-off in relationship-assessing performance between 18 months and 3 years old did not happen.

    Here’s a reasonably decent summary of the paper’s main points, and here’s the paper itself.

    Why the fall-off for American kids?  (A temporary fall-off, it seems…the researchers say that the American kids recover their relationship-assessing skills between the ages of  4-6 years.)  One hypothesis is language….possibly the “noun spurt” that is said to characterize early-English learning has something to do with it.  Or perhaps there are broader cultural factors:  “In particular, there are well-documented differ- ences in holistic and analytic processing (and relatedly, collectivist and individualist cognitive styles) across cultures, which may simi- larly result in an emphasis on relationships between entities or on characteristics of individual entities. More broadly, environmental variation across these learning contexts (e.g., socioeconomic status, number of siblings, and pedagogical and child- rearing practices) may differentially affect general cognitive skills that are known to influence relational reasoning, like executive function.”  (quoted from the paper)

    Or, perhaps, could there be a genetic explanation?…Would children of Chinese ancestry, raised in the US in English-speaking homes, show more often the Chinese  pattern or the American pattern in these experiments?  While a genetic explanation seems unlikely to me, I would think it should at least be considered.

    Most likely, to me, seems the language explanation.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has also been dubbed ‘linguistic relativity’, holds that the language we speak has a major impact on how we perceive the world…it fell into some disrepute after WWII because of its appropriation by the Nazis to make claims of cultural superiority and also because of some apparent errors in Whorf’s reporting, concerning for example the Inuit words for ‘snow’…it does make sense, however, that language has a significant impact on what thoughts can be most easily expressed and hence on what thoughts are most likely to be conceived.

    Posted in Academia, China, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, USA | 10 Comments »

    The Totalitarian Mindset is Strong on the Left

    Posted by David Foster on 11th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot:

    “I woke up this morning thinking it was going to be another great day. I’ve been celebrating with friends, family and the community since I turned 90. I’ve told you about the gracious gift of $117 million that was collected and given in my honor to four charities that mean a lot to me. All that happiness blew up because I said in a newspaper interview that I have supported and will continue to support Donald Trump.

    Boom!

    Negative stories… vicious threats, without cause, to boycott the company that has enabled my foundation to give billions to support autism, medical research, education, heart and neurological issues like stroke, and to help our veterans. The company that I retired from in 2002 and have not had a business relationship with in almost 20 years. A company that has employed more than a half-million people. The people who work there are affiliated with both political parties or no party at all. They are of all religions and all colors and backgrounds. Why would people want to hurt them?

    All because I give my voice and some of my money to our President. Am I in China? Argentina? Russia? That’s what it feels like to me.

    It saddens me that our country has come to this, where I, as a private citizen, cannot express my feelings. It angers me and it saddens me, but it sure as hell is not going to stop me. If you thought it would, you’ve got the wrong guy.

    In the next ten years, God willing, I will accomplish more to save this world than my critics will do even if they had forty lifetimes.”

    Few people have Bernie Marcus-level resources, and also relatively few, I’m afraid, have the emotional strength necessary to stand up against a mob, even a mob whose attacks are (usually) strictly verbal.  Most, I fear, will simply go along.

    And no one should be under the illusion that the Gleichschaltung will “only” require you to personally refrain from expressing unapproved thoughts: it will also require you to denounce and shun your friends and colleagues who have dared to express such thoughts.  See Lynchings and Witch-Trials, Technology-Enhanced:

    A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that he was still connected on social media with a colleague who’d fallen into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. “You know that we all can see that you are still friends with him,” read one of the emails my friend had received. “So. What are you going to do about that?”

    “So I folded,” he told me with a sad, defeated air. “I know I’m supposed to stick to my principles. That’s what we tell ourselves. Free association and all that. It’s part of the romance of our profession. But I can’t afford to actually do that. These people control who gets jobs. I’m broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever they need me to say.”

    Are there any among the current set of Democratic presidential candidates who see this kind of thing as a problem and who would provide even the most modest form of push-back against it?

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Leftism, USA | 18 Comments »

    Heat and the Movies

    Posted by David Foster on 5th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Hot weather encourages feelings of gratitude for the existence of air conditioning, the primary inventor of which (at least as far as a practical system goes) was Willis Carrier.  His original motivation was not the improvement of human comfort, but rather solving air quality problems affecting the operations of a printing company.  But A/C was quickly applied to the dehumidification and cooling of human was well as industrial environments.

    Initially, systems were large and expensive and hence better-fitted to businesses and other environments serving a lot of people than to individual homes.  One of the first industries that adopted air conditioning was the motion-picture theater industry, starting with an installation at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater in 1922.

    It makes sense to believe, and seems to be generally accepted, that the introduction of A/C had much to do with the great success of the movie industry…if the theater was one of the few places in town where you could be cool, then it would be nice to have enough new movies constantly coming out to justify going the the theater as often as possible.

    The same phenomenon applied with department stores…starting with a Hudson’s in Detroit in 1926…though I would think A/C was not quite as impactful in that case as in the case of the movies.

    BUT, with the introduction and constant improvement of home air conditioners, the process would have likely gone into reverse: if you can be cool at home, there is less incentive to “go to the movies” unless there is something showing that you really want to see. Similarly with retail..although until the introduction of the consumer Internet, you still needed to go to a store for most things.

    It is pretty common that a technology that helps a particular industry at one point will, later and with further development of that industry, harm that industry.  Another example is the newspaper industry:  one of the great enablers of the growth of the newspaper industry was the telegraph (along with the high-speed printing press and the Linotype machine.)  But as digital communications (of which the telegraph was an early example) developed into data networks and ultimately the Internet, the ability to conveniently extend the information flow into the home was devastatingly harmful to that industry.

    Returning to the air conditioner, another impact of this technology has been geographical: making areas that were previously not-so-desirable for reasons of climate much more generally inhabitable…as in the cases of the US south and southwest.

    A/C is a significant consumer of energy in the form of electricity, and as it is more widely adopted in places such India, it will have a major impact on electricity consumption in those countries.

    Thoughts?  Other industry examples?

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Human Behavior, Internet, Tech | 35 Comments »