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    Thinking, Making, Profiting

    Posted by David Foster on 12th May 2021 (All posts by )

    256 years ago this month, James Watt made the conceptual breakthrough that enabled a much more efficient steam engine…an engine that would play a major role in driving the Industrial Revolution.  He had been thinking about possibilities for improving the coal-hungry Newcomen engine, then the best available, which lost huge amounts of heat every cycle through the successive heating and cooling of the cylinder walls:

    It was in the Green of Glasgow.  I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon…I was thinking upon the engine at the time…when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder.

    But in addition to the many details involved in reducing this idea to practice, there was another problem inhibiting the creation of reasonably-efficient steam engines.  The boring of the cylinders…even when the best tools and the highest skills of the day were applied…was so imprecise that considerable quantities of steam escaped around the piston, greatly lowering the overall efficiency of the engine.

    Enter Matthew Boulton, who became Watt’s partner, and John Wilkinson, a Boulton associate and foundry operator who was obsessed with all things cast iron.  Boulton and Wilkinson wanted a steam engine to provide the blast for Wilkinson’s foundry, and they wanted an engine with especially-large cylinders…which made the problem of tight cylinder/piston fit even harder to solve.

    Wilkinson saw that the technology he had already developed for the very precise boring of cannon could, with some modifications, be adapted to the boring of steam engine cylinders.  Amid “searing heat and grinding din,” he achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”  With the combination of Watt’s separate condenser and Wilkinson’s improved boring process, the steam engine was ready for the starring role that it was to hold for the next century and beyond.

    Key point: It wasn’t only the design of the improved steam engine that mattered, but also the process for making it.

    What if Britain had been offshoring its foundry operations, with their “searing heat and grinding din” to another country?  Spain, let’s say.  Given the importance of the interaction between the design talent and the manufacturing talent, would the improved steam engine have been developed in the 1770s timeframe at all?  And whenever it had been developed, to which individuals and countries would the financial benefits of steam power have accrued?

    The present-day parallel is the relationship between microchip designers and microchip manufacturing facilities…foundries, as they are actually called.

    More about John Wilkinson, here.

    Posted in Britain, Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech | 10 Comments »

    “Root Causes”

    Posted by David Foster on 7th May 2021 (All posts by )

    The Biden administration wants to find and solve the ‘root causes’ driving the flood of refugees to the US from the south, and has assigned that task to VP Kamela Harris.  More generally, liberals and ‘progressives’ like to talk about ‘root causes’ for all kinds of things: crime, for example: instead of arresting criminals, just solve the Root Causes of crime!

    Someone needs to explain to these people the concept of ask why five times, and how that concept is properly implemented.  Example:

    PROBLEM: There is oil on factory floor.  Why?

    Looks like it’s coming from that machine over there.

    ACTION: Clean up the oil. But then ask…
    WHY is there oil leaking from that machine.

    The machine has a bad gasket.

    ACTION: Replace the gasket. But then ask..
    WHY was the gasket bad?

    Check out the condition of the gaskets on some other machines.
    Looks like we’ve been buying inferior gaskets.

    ACTION: Change the specifications so we don’t get any more of these. But also ask..
    WHY did we decide to buy the gaskets that we did?

    Uhh…they were cheap? Turns out the purchasing policy for supplies like this says “always buy the low bid.”

    ACTION: Change the policy to give more weight to quality as well as price. But also ask…
    WHY did the head of Purchasing ever approve a policy like this in the first place?

    Maybe because his *incentive program* includes a big component for year-over-year reductions in supplies cost, with no measurement for downtime impact of bad items?

    ACTION: Change the incentive program.
    WHY did a one-sided incentive program like this get created and approved?

    And so on. (There is nothing magic about the number Five)

    But importantly, you don’t wait until you run all the way up and down the chain of causation before you clean up the oil on the floor before someone slips on it and hurts himself. You don’t go through analysis of why inferior gaskets are being purchased before replacing the gaskets before the machine loses oil again and shuts down or destroys itself.

    Democrat politicians often act like they don’t understand these points, even informally and intuitively. Many of them really don’t, I think…but also, many of them just don’t care; accumulation of political power for themselves and their faction is all that matters.  Among their voters/supporters, though, there may be some who can be brought to understand the fallacies of root-causes-only thinking.

    And, very importantly, if you pursue the chain of causation upward to enough levels, you are likely to find causes which are either beyond your ability to influence, or for which such influence has a very long time constant.  In the manufacturing example, for instance, you may be a factory manager in a large company with very little influence on the incentive policies that drive Purchasing to acquire inferior gaskets.  That still doesn’t mean you don’t need to clean up the oil and replace the failed gaskets, anyway.  In the Biden/Harris policy case, serious thought would show that the ability of American leaders to influence the policies, economic systems, and cultures of our southern neighbors is strictly limited, and what influence we can exert is likely to have a very long time constant. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to do anything about the border crisis.

    Posted in Crime and Punishment, Deep Thoughts, Immigration, Latin America, Management, Politics | 17 Comments »

    Biden Likes to Talk About Trains

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd May 2021 (All posts by )

    …both actual trains and metaphorical trains, as in a recent Biden social media post: 100 days in–and America is getting back on track.

    So I’ll give him a railroad story, actually a poem, the following excerpt from which was quoted by Winston Churchill in 1935:

    Who is in charge of the clattering train?
    The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
    For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
    and Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear
    And signals flash through the night in vain
    Death is in charge of the clattering train!

    Original poem here; it appears that Churchill in his excerpt combined part of the first verse with part of the last.  The poem, which was published in 1890, was inspired by an actual railroad accident.

     

    Posted in Poetry, Politics, Transportation | 76 Comments »

    An Early and Excellent Example of a High-Technology Product Press Release

    Posted by David Foster on 27th April 2021 (All posts by )

    The poet/historian  Antipater sings the wonderfulness of the vertical waterwheel as a power source:

    Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill

    Sleep late, even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn

    For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands

    And they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle which

    With its revolving spokes, turns the heavy concave Nisyrian millstones

    Learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labour

    ( circa 65 bc)

     

    I would so hire that man for a Marketing Communications job.

     

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech | 6 Comments »

    “You Better Go to Raw Data”

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd April 2021 (All posts by )

    People operating complex machines and systems–ships, aircraft, and nuclear power plants, for example–are often dependent on information that has been processed or filtered in some way. The same is true of people exercising their responsibilities as citizens in a large and complex society, inasmuch as they  cannot directly and personally observe most of the relevant facts and events.  Disasters that occur in complex physical systems can serve as a metaphor to help shed light on disasters–actual and potential–in the political sphere.

    On June 9, 1995, the cruise ship Royal Majesty was on a routine voyage in good weather.  The vessel was equipped with GPS, which displayed latitude and longitude position…which the crew diligently plotted..and also drove a moving map overlaid on the radar scope.

    Unfortunately, the information being displayed and plotted bore little resemblance to the actual reality.

    As the gray sky turned black veil, the phosphorus-lit radar map with its neat lines and digital indication seemed clearer and more inviting than the dark world outside. As part of a sophisticated integrated bridge system, the radar map had everything–from a crisp radar picture, to ship position, buoy renderings, and up to the last bit of data anyone could want–until it seemed that the entire world lived and moved transparently, inside that little green screen. Using this compelling display, the second officer was piloting a phantom ship on an electronic lie, and nobody called the bluff.

    The bluff was finally called by reality itself, at 10 PM, when the ship jerked to the left with a grinding noise.  It was hard aground on the Rose and Crown Shoal, and could not be backed off.

    It was quickly determined that the cable to the GPS antenna had come loose, and the system was not actually obtaining the real, current positions. The captain ran to the LORAN unit, a completely separate electronic navigation system. The position accurately displayed on the LORAN differed from the displayed GPS position by 17 miles.

    The GPS unit had in fact honestly disclosed its lack of current information: it did this by displaying the characters ‘DR’…for Dead Reckoning, ie, extrapolating the current course and speed..but the annotation appeared in small characters and was not noticed. The crew thought they were getting an actual portrayal of the current reality, rather than an estimate that would progressively become a guesstimate with the passage of time.

    To use the term which has become common in media and political circles, the GPS and its associated display units were creating a convincing narrative…a narrative so convincing that no one, evidently, took the trouble to cross-check it with the LORAN, or to do a celestial fix.

    How many American citizens live in a media and information environment which is as closed and as convincing as what the crew of the Royal Majesty was seeing on their bridge?  Consider how quickly overwhelming media narratives were put together concerning, for example, the Hunter Biden laptop or the murders of the women in Atlanta.  In most such cases, you could watch CNN, MSNBC, and some of the old-line tv networks, you could listen to NPR, you could look at the memes being circulated on social media–and they would all be telling you the same story, an overall narrative which for most people will be as consistent and as convincing as that phantom world displayed on the Royal Majesty‘s radar scope and plotted on the paper charts was that ship’s Second Officer.

    As disasters go, the Royal Majesty affair was a fairly minor one: embarrassing and expensive, but no one was killed or injured.  Here’s a case which was much worse–the approach of a Delta Airlines flight into Boston Logan Airport, on July 31, 1973.

    At 11:40:07, the Captain advised the First Officer, who was doing the flying for this approach:

    You better go to raw data.  I don’t trust that thing.

    “That thing” was a Flight Director, an instrument which displays the calculated actions needed to follow a desired flight path.  Both Captain and the FO had become concerned about indications on this instrument which didn’t seem to make sense.

    It was too late.  25 seconds later, the plane slammed into the seawall. There were no survivors.

    The NTSB determined that the Flight Director’s ‘mode’ switch was incorrectly set: while the Captain and the FO believed it was displaying the calculated actions required for the airplane to follow the Instrument Landing System radio beam down to the runway, it was actually doing no such thing.  “Raw data” refers to the display of the plane’s actual, physical vertical and horizontal deviation from where it should be on the ILS beam…and would have shown that the airplane was not where it needed to be.  The Raw Data was not, however, so prominently displayed on the instrument panel as were the Flight Director commands.

    Convincing displays, convincing narratives, can be very dangerous.  New information tends to be absorbed into the overall picture.  When the navigating officer of the Royal Majesty observed the radar reflection of a buoy on his radar screen, and, shortly thereafter, the passage of a buoy was reported on the ship’s port side, it confirmed in his mind that it was the ‘BA’ buoy, which marks to entrance to the Boston traffic lanes…and the whole GPS-derived picture became even more convincing.  But it wasn’t really BA–it was actually the Asia Rip buoy, anchored to a sunken wreck, which marks the Rose and Crown Shoal.

    In the political/media sphere, the misleading narratives that are convincingly presented are not the matter or mechanical or human error, they are a matter of human design.  Some of the people and organizations propagating these narratives know they are false, some would rather–for career or social reasons–not think about it too deeply, and some actually believe the narratives. It happens on both/all political sides, but happens a lot more, and more effectively, on the Left, because the Left/Woke dominance of media is so nearly complete.

    The pilot and copilot of Flight 723 had only a matter of seconds to question and cross-check the ‘narrative’ that they were seeing on their Flight Director.  Citizens, operating in the political/media sphere, have less time pressure…but the time available is not infinite.  Multiple sources of information are more available than at any point in history–but the Narrative of the like-thinking media and its influence strategies is overwhelming, especially for people who don’t have a lot of time to follow political matters.  Confirmation bias, too, plays a strong role.

    Will a sufficient number of people, metaphorically check the displayed GPS position against the LORAN, or check the Flight Director command bars against the raw localizer and glideslope data?  And will they do so before it is too late for recovery?

    (More on the Royal Majesty incident at my post here.  Detail on the Delta Flight 723 accident is provided in the NTSB report.)

     

     

    Posted in Aviation, Leftism, Media, Miscellaneous, Politics, Tech, USA | 32 Comments »

    The Logic of Insatiable Centralization

    Posted by David Foster on 8th April 2021 (All posts by )

    People and businesses have been leaving New York City, and the state of California, at a considerable rate. Some of these people/businesses are *resources* from the standpoint of government and its leaders: they are tax money on the hoof.   Cuomo, de Blasio, and Newsome would surely like to have a way of keeping them there.  Would these leaders, if they were allowed, favor a legal prohibition on exits, or at least a prohibitive tax penalty for such exit? This is the logic of the Berlin Wall, or of the Reich Flight Tax, the Reichsfluchtsteuer.   Such things may seem impossible in America, but the Dems have pushed for a lot of things that would have previously been considered impossible in America.

    Comes now Janet Yellen of the Biden administration, with a proposal for a global minimum tax on businesses, thereby nailing the feet of companies to the floor and keeping them from going elsewhere to avoid excessive exactions.  Just as Blue-city mayors would rather not have to worry about offering a tax system that is fair and economically-rational, the same is true of the Blue Biden administration.

    As a writer at Ricochet has pointed out:

    (Yellen’s proposal) is a terrible idea, for a very simple reason: “harmonizing” between governments eliminates competition between them. And it locks in the kind of bloated incompetence that is a feature of even the best governments out there.

    We want companies to be able to shop for their preferred home, just as we want Americans to be able to move to low-tax states. Similarly, if a poor country is trying to attract tenants (companies), why should they not be able to offer advantageous tax rates or less bureaucratic overburden?

    It would not just be a matter of keeping companies from moving–the proposal would also tend to reduce or eliminate pressure to keep taxes low and minimize government waste.

    Basically, this global minimum tax would represent the collusion of the political and bureaucratic classes against everybody else.

    And against diversity–any diversity of political and economic philosophies.

    “Progressives” don’t like fine-tuning incentives; they like issuing prohibitions and giving orders.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Leftism, Taxes | 38 Comments »

    Trimming the Kids to Fit the Template

    Posted by David Foster on 26th March 2021 (All posts by )

    Kevin Meyer, in his post Leveraging the Solitude of Leadership, cites a lecture delivered at West Point by essayist William Deresiewicz…who started by describing his experience on the Yale admissions committee:

    The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars.

    So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life.

    That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

    But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.

    Dangerous how?  Largely because of all that emphasis on hoop-jumping…

    What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

    A couple of weeks ago, a WSJ bookshelf piece titled The Price of Admission reviewed Little Platoons, by Matt Feeney, the theme of which is “a growing incursion of market forces into the family home.”

    In the ambitious, competitive environments that Mr Feeney describes, year-round sports clubs and camps promote not joyful play or healthy exertion but ‘development’ and preparation for advancement to ‘the next level’–where the good, choiceworthy thing is always a few hard steps away.  If there is a terminus to this process, it is admission to a good college, which is, for many of the parents Mr Feeney describes, the all-encompassing goal of child-rearing.

    As a result, the most powerful and insidious interlopers in Mr Feeney’s story turn out to be elite college admissions officers.  These distant commissars quietly communicate a vision of the 18-year-old who will be worthy of passing between their ivied arches, and ‘eager, anxious, ambitious kids’, the author tells us, upon ‘hearing of the latest behavioral and character traits favored by admissions people, will do their best to affect or adopt these traits.’

    The emphasis on college admissions, especially ‘elite’ college admissions, has given enormous power to the administrators involved in this process–people who are ‘vain and blinkered’, in Mr Feeney’s words. They are also capricious:

    Admissions officers once looked favorably upon students who captained every team, founded every club and spent every school break building homes in Africa and drilling for the SATs. Ambitious students and parents obliged, shaping family life in accordance to those preferences. In time, though, colleges found themselves deluged with résumé-padding renaissance students. Doing everything was no longer a sign of distinction, so admissions personnel changed the signals they were sending. “Now,” Mr. Feeney says, “instead of ‘well-rounded’ generalist strivers, admissions officers favor the passionate specialist, otherwise known as the ‘well-lopsided’ applicant.” Striving families are only too happy to comply.

    I haven’t read Mr Feeney’s book, but at least as far as the college admissions process goes, I’d question whether it reflects ‘the intrusion of market forces’ into family life–if America was to go all the way to government ownership and control of those functions now performed by businesses, the malign effects of the admissions hoop-jumping described by the author would be just about the same.

    In any case, people who are taught to center their lives and personalities around this admissions process, and the subsequent educational experience, are unlikely to be either first-class innovators or first-class leaders.

    And, worse, the process makes them less likely to become thoughtful and courageous citizens.  In the comments to this post, commenter OBloodyHell quoted Walt Whitman:

    There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.

    “Roughness and spirit of defiance” are not likely to be compatible with the admissions process…and the education…that are all too common in American universities today.

    Posted in Academia, Civil Society, Education, Society, USA | 48 Comments »

    Green Shoots

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd March 2021 (All posts by )

    It’s springtime, and there are some signs of hope.

    People who reached their breaking point on ‘wokeness’.

    See also: How to defend free speech.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, USA | 5 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2021 (All posts by )

    The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

    St Patrick’s day gives me a good hook for re-posting this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this superb book.  Ralph Peters calls this it “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

    In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

    Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Caslebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

    Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

    Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

    Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

    Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

    John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

    Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

    Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

    Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

    This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

    He ran his hand along the stone.  When was it this keep had been built?  The fourteenth century or the fifteenth. The MacDermotts had held it in Cromwell’s day…When the Cromwellian army moved west from Sligo, the MacDermotts had been blown out of their keep, quite literally. The yawning crater in the east wall was the work of Ireton’s artillery…

    And here stand I, Manning thought, inheritor of that conquest, sick at heart because other armies are moving along the same road.  Faces flushed by candleflame in Daly’s gaming rooms, children, like himself, of Cromwell’s spawn, bank drafts written against the harvests of Muster and Connaught.  Ellen Kirwan, taken by right of Cromwell’s conquest, peasant’s daughter brought gawky and long-legged into the big house, her legs spread to receive that ancient conquest, Ireton’s battering cannon.  More wife than mistress now, fussing over him, reminding him to shave, knitting patiently by firelight as he worked and reworked the account books.  

    “It is a sorry mess that history has made of us,” he tells Ellen.  “Old wounds and old debts.  God help us all.”

    The book is also about the way in which history is driven by words and abstractions.  “Words have a splendor for us,”  observes Malcolm Elliott, “and so we send them off into the world to do mischief.”

    Ellen Treacy:

    On a rise of ground from which she could see the distant bay, she stopped and sat motionless, the reins slack in her thin, capable hands. The bay was empty, not a sail or a hull in sight, the water lifeless and gray.  History had come to them upon these water, three foreign ships riding at anchor, filled with men, muskets, cannon.  History had come ashore at Kilcummin strand, watched by fishermen standing beside their huts.  Poetry made actual.  Not her mother’s, not Goldsmith’s or The Seasons by Mr Thompson…That other, older poetry, the black letters of an alphabet remote from English, with prophesies of ships from France, gold from Spain, the deliverance of the Gael. History, poetry, abstractions, words which had transformed and shattered her world. 

    An incredibly good, involving, thought-provoking, emotionally-affecting book.  I recommend it very highly.

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Ireland | 8 Comments »

    A Machine for Preventing Civil War

    Posted by David Foster on 12th March 2021 (All posts by )

    Scott Alexander, in a 2017 post at Slate Star Codex:

    People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

    Very insightful and correct, I believe, if by liberalism one means free speech, freedom of religion, and limited government, rather than the cluster of ‘progressive’ believe that often fly under the ‘liberalism’ brand today.

    And when the above attributes of a society do not exist or are eroded, then live-and-let live  become difficult to impossible, and all questions become politicized, because political outcomes determine everything.

    When the government controls everything, there is no constructive relief valve for all this pent-up tension.  It all boils down to a “historic” election once every couple of years, upon whose outcome everything depends.  They’re all going to be “historic” elections from now on. That’s not a good thing.

    Ultimately, the game of politics becomes like those Aztec ball games in which the losers are said to have been sacrificed.  Indeed, some of this is happening in America already today, with Democrats demanding that Trump and his supporters be pursued post-election in almost every possible way.

    If the machine of liberalism (as defined above) is destroyed, then another kind of machine will quickly take its place…the machine described by Jean Anouilh in his version of Antigone:

    The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job . . . The rest is automatic. You don’t need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction

     

     

     

     

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, History, USA | 90 Comments »

    To Disappear in Dreams

    Posted by David Foster on 6th March 2021 (All posts by )

    An article in Wired says: The future of virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?

    and quotes John Carmack,  Doom co-creator and the former CTO of Oculus:

    People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.

    Actually, I doubt that there is any kind of tech-industry-wide conspiracy to cool the people out and keep them from revolting by enmeshing them into virtual worlds…mostly, this is just about making money and doing cool technical stuff…on the supply side that is.  On the demand site, it should be of more than a little concern that escapism is so important to so many.

    I’m reminded of some of the reactions when the movie Avatar came out.  CNN reported at the time:

    James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

    According to the article, there were more than 1000 posts to a forum for people trying to cope from the depression they experienced after seeing this film..and not being able to stay within it permanantly.

    Neptunus Lex responded: “Some folks don’t get the point. You have to come home when it’s over.”

    But we seem to have an increasing number of people who don’t want to come home when it’s over…who don’t want it to ever be over…but want to stay in that virtual world permanently.

    And, relatedly, there is also pharmaceutical-based escapism, legal or illegal.  Various forms of addiction, already at concerning levels, have risen considerably over the last year.  And, apparently, it has long been true that considerable numbers of people find an ordinary trip on an ordinary commercial airliner to be so stressful that they medicate themselves beforehand.

    In my 2010 post on the Avatar reactions, I said:

    I immediately thought of the old Chinese opium dens…which were largely inhabited by people whose lives were so miserable that their desire to disappear in dreams was entirely understandable.

    But what misery or bleakness are the would-be permanant habitués of the Avatar den seeking to escape?

    And this question can be extended to other types of addiction-dens, as well.

    The title of this post was inspired by a line in Tom Russell’s song Ambrose Larsen and another song on the same album, The Dreamin’.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Media, Society, Tech | 29 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 28th February 2021 (All posts by )

    Vitaliy Katsenelson writes worthwhile content for those interested in investing, art, classical music, and philosophical thoughts about life in general.  See his recent post about coveting and envy.

    Doggedness, canine and human.

    A piece about skateboarding and flying, with thoughts from St-Exupery.

    Speaking about flying, TxRed the Cat Rotator writes about some of her aerobatic experiences.

    Projecting (simulated) 3D images onto your plate.

    Doctors and state borders.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Aviation, Economics & Finance, Medicine, Music, Philosophy, Sports | 11 Comments »

    The Computer Age Turns 75

    Posted by David Foster on 21st February 2021 (All posts by )

    In February 1946, the first general purpose electronic computer…the ENIAC…was introduced to the public.  Nothing like ENIAC had been seen before, and the unveiling of the computer, a room-filling machine with lots of flashing lights and switches–made quite an impact.

    ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was created primarily to help with the trajectory-calculation problems for artillery shells and bombs, a problem that was requiring increasing numbers of people for manual computations.  John Mauchly, a physics professor attending a summer session at the University of Pennsylvania, and J Presper Eckert, a 24-year-old grad student, proposed the machine after observing the work of the women (including Mauchly’s wife Mary) who had been hired to assist the Army with these calculations. The proposal made its way to the Army’s liason with Penn,  and that officer, Lieutenant Herman Goldstine,  took up the project’s cause.  (Goldstine apparently heard about the proposal not via formal university channels but via a mutual friend, which is an interesting point in our present era of remote work.)  Electronics had not previously been used for digital computing, and a lot of authorities thought an electromechanical machine would be a better and safer bet.

    Despite the naysayers (including RCA, actually which refused to bid on the machine), ENIAC did work, and the payoff was in speed.  This was on display in the introductory demonstration, which was well-orchestrated from a PR standpoint.  Attendees could watch the numbers changing as the flight of a simulated shell proceeded from firing to impact, which took about 20 seconds…a little faster than the actual flight of the real, physical shell itself.  Inevitably, the ENIAC was dubbed a ‘giant brain’ in some of the media coverage…well, the “giant” part was certainly true, given the machine’s size and its 30-ton weight.

    In the photo below, Goldstine and Eckert are holding the hardware module required for one single digit of one number.

    The machine’s flexibility allowed it to be used for many applications beyond the trajectory work,  beginning with modeling the proposed design of the detonator for the hydrogen bomb.   Considerable simplification of the equations had to be done to fit within ENIAC’s capacity; nevertheless, Edward Teller believed the results showed that his proposed design would work. In an early example of a disagreement about the validity of model results, the Los Alamos mathematician Stan Ulam thought otherwise.  (It turned out that Ulam was right…a modified triggering approach had to be developed before working hydrogen bombs could be built.)  There were many other ENIAC applications, including the first experiments in computerized weather forecasting, which I’ll touch on later in this post.

    Programming ENIAC was quite different from modern programming.  There was no such thing as a programming language or instruction set.  Instead, pluggable cable connections, combined with switch settings, controlled the interaction among ENIAC’s 20 ‘accumulators’ (each of which could store a 10-digit number and perform addition & subtraction on that number) and its multiply and divide/square-root units.  With clever programming it was possible to make several of the units operate in parallel. The machine could perform conditional branching and looping…all-electronic, as opposed to earlier electromechanical machines in which a literal “loop” was established by glueing together the ends of a punched paper tape.   ENIAC also had several ‘function tables’, in which arrays of rotary switches were set to transform one quantity into another quantity in a specified way…in the trajectory application, the relationship between a shell’s velocity and its air drag.

    The original ‘programmers’…although the word was not then in use…were 6 women selected from among the group of human trajectory calculators. Jean Jennings Bartik mentioned in her autobiography that when she was interviewed for the job, the interviewer (Goldstine) asked her what she thought of electricity.  She said she’d taken physics and knew Ohm’s Law; Goldstine said he didn’t care about that; what he wanted to know was whether she was scared of it!  There were serious voltages behind the panels and running through the pluggable cables.

    “The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” Jean Bartik later remarked.  Although the equations that needed to be solved were defined by physicists and mathematicians, the programmers had to figure out how to transform those equations into machine sequences of operations, switch settings, and cable connections.  In addition to the logical work, the programmers had also to physically do the cabling and switch-setting and to debug the inevitable problems…for the latter task, ENIAC conveniently had a hand-held remote control, which the programmer could use to operate the machine as she walked among its units.

    Notoriously, none of the programmers were introduced at the dinner event or were invited to the celebration dinner afterwards.  This was certainly due in large part to their being female, but part of it was probably also that programming was not then recognized as an actual professional field on a level with mathematics or electrical engineering; indeed, the activity didn’t even yet have a name.  (It is rather remarkable, though, that in an ENIAC retrospective in 1986…by which time the complexity and importance of programming were well understood…The New York Times referred only to “a crew of workers” setting dials and switches.)

    The original programming method for ENIAC put some constraints on the complexity of problems that it could be handled and also tied up the machine for hours or days while the cable-plugging and switch-setting for a new problem was done. The idea of stored programming had emerged (I’ll discuss later the question of who the originator was)…the idea was that a machine could be commanded by instructions stored in a memory just like data; no cable-swapping necessary. It was realized that ENIAC could be transformed into a stored-program machine  with the function tables…those arrays of rotary switches…used to store the instructions for a specific problem. The cabling had to be done only once, to set the machine up for interpreting  a particular vocabulary of instructions.  This change gave ENIAC a lot more program capacity and made it far easier to program; it did sacrifice some of the speed.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, History, Science, Tech, War and Peace | 20 Comments »

    Some Actual Data on the Texas Electrical Debacle

    Posted by David Foster on 18th February 2021 (All posts by )

    Here is the overall generation mix from February 11–17.  The upper light brown line is gas-fired generation.  The brown line starting at about 10,000 is coal.  Green is wind, the yellow is solar, as is apparent from the daily pattern, and the almost-straight line starting at about 5,000 is nuclear.

    Source is EIA…they have a lot of useful data, but you have to poke around a bit to find it.

    Posted in Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 54 Comments »

    A Sadly Revealing Story

    Posted by David Foster on 13th February 2021 (All posts by )

    A Houston physician named Dr. Hasan Gokal had a limited quantity of the Moderna covid vaccine to distribute.  The vial had been opened, and the vaccine would expire in six hours. He could either find 10 qualified people to administer it to, or just throw it away.  He chose the former course, rounding up 10 people, some of whom were acquaintances and others strangers.

    For that, he was fired from his job and criminally prosecuted.

    Officials maintained that he had violated protocol and should have returned the remaining doses to the office or thrown them away. According to Dr Gokal,  one of the officials startled him by questioning the lack of “equity” among those he had vaccinated.

    So, if he had just thrown away this scarce and valuable vaccine, he would have been just fine.  Because he used his judgment and took action, he lost his job and was prosecuted…the judge threw the charge out for its ridiculousness, but the prosecutor, whose name is Kim Ogg, has vowed to present the matter to a grand jury.

    We seem to be moving to a point in America today where the less you do, the better off you are: don’t use your individual judgment, don’t take action without bureaucratic approvals, don’t conduct informal conversations and don’t tell jokes.

    I am reminded of the Spanish naval official (see my post here) who in 1797 wrote a plaintive essay on the topic: Why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?

    An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.

    Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…

    Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

    I think Don Grandallana would recognize many of the behavior patterns in America today as being the same kind of thing that were so destructive to his country’s chances in battle.

    Note that Dr Gokal was questioned about a lack of ‘equity’ in his distribution of the vaccines. “Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?” he asked.  Exactly, he was told.

    Time available for the vaccine distribution was strictly limited; Dr Gokal probably contacted patients and other people he knew and many of them were Indian.  Was he supposed to get demographic data for his county and ensure that the people he contacted matched the average statistical profile?

    I am also reminded of something written by historian AJP Taylor about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cited in my post here:

    The appointment of every school teacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital doctor, of every tax-collector, was a signal for national struggle. Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs and subsidies; these, in every country, produce ‘log-rolling,’ and nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs. German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the products of universities and fought for appointment at the highest professional level: their disputes concerned only a few hundred state jobs. The generation which followed them was the result of universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state employment which existed in every village; hence the more popular national conflicts at the turn of the century.

    We are now at the point in America where every possible decision and situation, down to the time-critical administration of vaccines, must be looked at through ethnic lenses. We may be heading for the same kind of creaky and rather dysfunctional society as was Austria-Hungary…and it’s quite possible that the actual outcome will be something much darker.

    Lead and Gold cited Sir John Keegan on British impressions of American GI’s who arrived in that country during WWII:

    Americans did not defer; that was the first and strongest of the impressions they made. European travelers to the United States had made that observation even in the eighteenth century, and it was made wholesale by British observers of the GIs. In a society which worked by deference, there were many who were shocked by the upstandingness of the individual American soldier. Enlisted men did not know their place, and their officers seemed unconcerned by the free-and-easy ways of their men. Many of the British, who had been taught their place well, found they liked the Americans for their casualness and admired a system of discipline which worked by getting things done. American energy: that was the second impression. 

    In America today, we seem to have lost much of that spirit.  Can we get it back?

     

     

    Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Organizational Analysis, Society, USA | 50 Comments »

    “You Play with My World Like it’s Your Little Toy”

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2021 (All posts by )

    Watching a series of European bureaucrats…pompous, arrogant, and extremely unattractive European bureaucrats…asserting the need for a global ‘great reset’, I was reminded of the above line from Bob Dylan’s song.

    In America, too, of course, we have politicians and bureaucrats demanding a Great Reset.  And Dylan’s song, of course, was directed at armaments manufacturers, not at world-resetting politicians and their operatives. Nevertheless, I think the phrase captures well the arrogance of those who believe they have the knowledge, insight, and authority to reorganize the lives of everyone on the planet.  And in their view of things, there isn’t any ‘my world’ for the individual; there is no sphere of individual autonomy and agency which is not to be made available for their interference.  It’s all their world.

    In 1931, a book titled The Conscription of a People was published by Katherine, Duchess of Atholl.  It was “a blistering, well-documented indictment of the savage collectivization of life in the Soviet Union.”

    The title of the book provides a perfect description of the worldview of the Resetters.  The entire population is to be drafted into an army, assigned to whatever battles and tasks their rulers..far beyond their ability to influence..think most fitting.

     

    Posted in Europe, Music, Political Philosophy, Russia, USA | 16 Comments »

    Narrowing Horizons

    Posted by David Foster on 31st January 2021 (All posts by )

    William Shirer, on his experiences in Germany during the early Nazi era:

    I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for the truth, said they were.

    Even though Shirer had plenty of access to outside news and information sources, and was well aware of Nazi lies, he still found it difficult to escape psychologically from the effects of the stiflingly-constrained information environment.

    Many of us have wondered how intelligent people–some of whom we may know personally–can fall so completely under the spell of the Democrat worldview, as it exists in its present ‘woke’ state…a worldview which is replete with ‘the most outlandish assertions,’ to use Shirer’s phrase.  But consider: if one gets one’s news from CNN, MSNBC, and even the traditional networks, and from newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times and their imitators…and one’s entertainment from mainstream movies and musical groups…and one works for a company, university, or ‘nonprofit’…then one is living within a highly uniform information and opinion environment. Yes, you might be exposed to the occasional dissident opinion on social media or directly from friends and acquaintances, but you will develop ‘antibodies’, inculcated by the approved sources, which lead you to dismiss such opinions as conspiracy theories, brainwashing by Trump, or something similar.

    It is, of course, much easier to find dissenting voices in 2021 America than it was in the time and place of which Shirer wrote.  (Shirer does say that ‘in those days, in the Thirties, a German listener could still tune his dial to a score of foreign radio stations’ without taking much risk…but most didn’t, evidently, or chose to disbelieve what they heard from outside sources.)

    The psychological drive to conform reinforces the controlled information environment and discourages explorations outside of it.  In my post Oxytocin and Conformity, I cited some research on how the ‘cuddling and belonging’ hormone oxytocin affects public and private conformity, and recalled one of the episodes of the TV series The World at War in which a German man spoke about the temptation to conform.  He had been strongly anti-Nazi, but admitted that he had felt a strong emotional pull to join the rallies and be a part of the the movement.  (He said it much more eloquently than the foregoing sentence would suggest)  I also cited a blog post whose author, after critiquing the craziness of the extreme “progressives,”  went on to say:

    I’m going to be very real with you for a moment, and take off my hat has a blogger, an author, and whatever else I may be, and just speak to you as a man.

    This could have been me.

    Does that surprise you? There was a time I skirted so close to falling under this spell, it would shock you. I felt the guilt, the social pressure, the desire for conformity. Despite the terrible weight such ideology carries on the mind, it is absurdly easy to fall into it. Every day we are assaulted by the agitprop. It is so easy to just say “yes, it’s all my fault, I will submit and obey.”

    It will bring momentary relief, because you will no longer have to fight a narrative that is bombarded upon you 24 hours a day. That mental effort is, itself, rather exhausting on the mind. But if you accept the chains, that is a far greater weight, one that will destroy you. The chains are seductive. They call, because of the enormous weight of social power behind them.

    The pressure is both great and subtle. Imagine a conversation about the weather, innocent enough on its own. A friend might say “wow, that global warming sure is kicking in today!” You’ve a few choices here. You can challenge him, but the immediate counter is likely to be something like “well, 99% of scientists agree, sooooo….” The implication, of course, is that you are stupid for disagreeing with 99% of scientists (whether or not there is any truth to that claim, either). You could remain silent because it’s easier. Or you could just give in, regardless of the truth of the matter, because it’s easiest. Meanwhile, if you counter your friend successfully, you may be down a friend by the end of the night.

    So whether or not a lot of folks believe this thing, soon consensus is reached, as much to peer pressure as anything else. Then it is, further, easier to agree on welfare, tax policy, affirmative action, black lives matter, social justice, etc… Each one has a superficial rhetorical argument which sounds nice, and which has enormous media programming and social pressure behind it.

    A thousand such chats happen every day, both in the real world, and the social media world. The sum total of which is designed to move you, via peer pressure and Weaponized Empathy, toward self-hatred, and intense personal guilt for things which you neither did, nor were capable of preventing.

    Soon a man might find himself agreeing with lunatic propositions that all Republicans are literal Nazis, and Donald Trump is worse than Hitler because… well, nobody really knows the reasons.

    Submission is always the easier short-term choice. Long-term, however, it just destroys a man’s soul.

    I am not asserting that the present-day Democrat belief system is identical to Naziism (although there are indeed some disturbing similarities as well as differences), or that the control of the information environment is as tight as what existed in mid-1930s Germany…but still, when you step back and look at all the ways in which a consistent worldview is being promulgated and views from outside that worldview are being suppressed, then the information horizons–especially for those people who don’t have a particularly strong need to think for themselves or willingness to challenge accepted beliefs–are narrowing at a pretty frightening rate.

     

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Germany, History, Human Behavior, Science, Society, USA | 52 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading, Viewing, and Listening

    Posted by David Foster on 25th January 2021 (All posts by )

    Smiling Victorians…a photo essay

    A tour of the Atlanta Hartsfield air traffic control tower

    Speaking of ATC…a controller at Boston Center and a Delta pilot on her frequency discover that her grandfather was the man who hired him, back in 1981.

    The transistor:  a documentary from 1954.

    Tonight being Burns Night, here’s a song I like from Robert Burns...musical setting by Ludwig Beethoven, oddly enough.  Some 19th-century musical entrepreneurship was involved in the Burns-Beethoven connection. Lyrics, including modern-English translation, here.

    Think I’ll pass on the kilt and the haggis, though.

    Posted in Aviation, History, Music, Photos, Poetry, Tech, Transportation | 14 Comments »

    Comm Check

    Posted by David Foster on 20th January 2021 (All posts by )

    When the First World War broke out, a British cable ship set sail with orders to cut the German undersea cables.  Given the British control of the seas, the cables could not be repaired during the course of the war, and this led to a British dominance of communications with neutral countries–especially the United States.  While Germany was not totally cut off from the world–they had a powerful radio transmitter at Nauen–communication from the Allied Powers was more convenient and subject to British influence; war correspondents, for example, tended to file their reports from Britain.  In the opinion of many writers (here, for instance), this gave the Allied Powers a considerable advantage in propaganda.  (Also in message interception for purposes of espionage, of course)

    Availability of communications is of great importance in conflicts of all kinds. “Congress can make a general, but only communications can make him a commander,” is how the American general Omar Bradley put it.

    We have seen in recent how control of communications can influence political outcomes, with, for example, the playing down and outright banning of the Hunter Biden story perpetrated by both traditional and social media.  How many people would have voted differently had they been aware of this matter?  One survey suggests that the number would have been quite significant.

    And is it beyond the realm of the possible that certain ‘tech’ and infrastructure companies might go beyond the blocking of political communications with which they disagree and…actively or passively…block government operational communications that they don’t like?  See this post:

    The Department of Defense uses software created, delivered, and maintained by many of the same high-tech companies now engaged in shutting down online speech. If the titans of tech can pull the plug on public communications tools people have come to rely on, some observers fear, they might do the same to the Pentagon in response to a military action deemed unacceptable by San Franciscans.

    Something along those lines already happened with Project Maven, a major Pentagon initiative using Google algorithms to identify drone targets. The software was well under way when, in 2018, thousands of Google’s workers protested their company becoming a defense contractor. 

    Could companies, acting on their own opinions or in order to placate key groups of employees, really get away with refusing to supply urgently-needed capabilities to the government?  From the article:

    The Hudson Institute’s Clark says that if a tech giant withdrew access to services it had agreed to provide to the military, it would likely have to pay penalties for breach of contract. Such fines might make little difference to the bottom line of Big Tech. But the loss of cloud capabilities in the middle of a conflict could be disastrous for warfighters.

    During the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch refused to supply parts for the JDAM missile.  I don’t know whether litigation was filed by the DoD to recover damages. But the consequences of such refusals could well involve lives as well as money.

    (Gregory Sanders, a fellow at the Defense-Industrial Initiaves Group) says the Pentagon could always invoke the Defense Production Act “if a company pulled out of a service provision in a crisis environment in a non-orderly manner.” As the Congressional Research Service puts it, the act “allows the President to require persons (including businesses and corporations)” to “prioritize and accept government contracts for materials and services.”  But that isn’t a guaranteed strategy for success. “The quality of work you get when compelling an objecting vendor wouldn’t necessarily be the best, so DoD wouldn’t want to invoke those authorities needlessly.”  It’s well-known that ‘working to rule’ can greatly slow things down in activities of all kinds; much more so, surely, where creative thinking is a big part of the work to be done.

    H G Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come posits the emergence of the Air Dictatorship: global rule established by a technocratic group that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.  Benevolent, rule, of course, as Wells saw it.

    Are we in danger of de facto rule by a Communications Dictatorship, or at least a Communications Oligarchy?

     

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Civil Liberties, Tech, Transportation, USA | 27 Comments »

    Feudalism in America?

    Posted by David Foster on 13th January 2021 (All posts by )

    Veronika Kyrylenko believes that we may be headed for a new era of feudalism in this country. I don’t completely agree with her analysis, but it’s a thought-provoking piece.

    See also my 2018 post Coupling, which makes the point that the expansion of connectivity–geographically and otherwise–has downsides as well as upsides. The downsides may well lead individuals to seek security and protection, even at the cost of autonomy and freedom.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Society, USA | 35 Comments »

    Book Review: Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

    Posted by David Foster on 5th January 2021 (All posts by )

    Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

    —-

    This is a pulp SF novel from 1954, which has uncomfortable relevance to our present era.

    The story is set in the then-future year of 1990.  The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  (Prefiguring “nudging”)  The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is the carrying out of influence operations.

    One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.

    Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated.  One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.”  Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window.  On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect.  The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.

    Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is.  “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”

    The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”

    Those individuals who resist the conditioning and are found to hold unapproved opinions–or find themselves to hold unapproved opinions–are said to have “communications blocks,” and good citizens will act on their own to request treatment for such blocks. The first level of treatment is the Psychotherapy Calculator, an interactive system which will help the patient change any objectionable opinions and behavior.  But in some cases, the PC determines that stronger methods are necessary, and in those cases, the patient is referred for a lobotomy.  The escorting of patients for mandatory psychotherapy and lobotomy procedures is done by a white-uniformed police force known as the Clinic Squad.

    Citizens are, of course, expected to report any instances of unapproved beliefs or actions.  When the protagonist’s girlfriend Nancy overhears one of her colleagues expressing sympathy for a man who is in serious trouble, she reports the girl immediately. (“For the moment I disliked Nancy,” says Gerald.  “Then I felt sorry for her.”)  Nancy herself is concerned that there may be something wrong with her, and has considered reporting herself for voluntary automated psychotherapy.  “If I did have (something wrong with her), I’d want to be purged of it quickly before it could make me do something awful like that poor Mr Shell”…Gerald notes that her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass to finish the drink.

    Gerald, the protagonist, works within the Communications Department…unknown to his superiors, he is a member of a resistance organization which aims to overthrow the existing system of government and to restore individual liberty. He must feign agreement when his immediate boss talks about how wonderful the system is and how misguided are those who oppose it:

    Never has there been more freedom anywhere than in America today.  We’ve done away with police and even prisons.  Crime has been almost wiped out since we recognized it as a social disease.  We’ve done away with poverty. There are fewer restrictions on people than ever before in the history of mankind.  For the first time they’re really free.

    Gerald reflects:

    Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, I wouldn’t have argued with him.  He believed what he was saying. His faith was the faith of a Torquemada backed by science.  There was no way to make him see that the social engineers had taken away only one freedom, but that it was the ultimate freedom–the right to choose.  Everything…was decided for them and then they were conditioned to want it.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Russia, Tech, USA | 16 Comments »

    New Year’s Eve, 2020/21

    Posted by David Foster on 31st December 2020 (All posts by )

    A thought from the late and very great Neptunus Lex:

    “I’ve often wished that you could split at each important choice in life. Go both ways, each time a fork in the road came up. Compare notes at the end, those of us that made it to the clearing at the end of the path. Tell it all over a tumbler of smokey, single malt.”

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Holidays | 36 Comments »

    4284 Characters

    Posted by David Foster on 29th December 2020 (All posts by )

    A description of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and how it works.

    Source code for a vaccine?  Well, as Glenn Reynolds likes to say, this is the 21st century.

    Posted in Health Care, Medicine, Science, Tech | 23 Comments »

    Christmas 2020

    Posted by David Foster on 24th December 2020 (All posts by )

    Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

    Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

    Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

    Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

    Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

    In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

    The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

    An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

    A Christmas-appropriate poem from Rudyard Kipling

    I was curious as to what the oldest Christmas carol might be:  this Billboard article suggests some possibilities.

    The story of electric Christmas tree lights

    Mona Charen, who is Jewish, wonders  what’s going on with the Christians?

    The 2017 Christmas season, in combination with the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me something written by the French author Georges Bernanos:  A Tale for Children.

    Here’s a passage I’ve always liked from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.  The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Christianity, History, Holidays, Miscellaneous, Music, Poetry | 5 Comments »

    Living in the Hate of the Common People

    Posted by David Foster on 9th December 2020 (All posts by )

    Someone at a social media site, who I will not dignify with a link, wrote:

    I think we need to find a way to stop the working class from voting altogether.

    This individual, who is in the UK and is obviously a furious anti-Brexiter, also wrote:

    Idiots and racists shouldn’t be able to ruin the lives of people who do well in life by voting for things they don’t understand. The problem in this country boils down to low information morons having the ability to vote.

    The above attitude reminds me of something written by that great historian and social analyst Harry Flashman, describing how people of his aristocratic class viewed the workers of the Chartist movement, circa 1848:

    You have no notion, today, how high feeling ran; the mill-folk were the enemy then, as though they were Frenchmen or Afghans.

    There are people in the US who have similar views of politics, only with reference to Trump voters rather than to Brexit.  Many Democrats, and especially ‘progressives’, assume and assert that Trump voters are ignorant people who are failing economically.  It is difficult for them to credit that there are quite a few Trump voters who are educated and thoughtful, and who in some cases are quite successful in career/economics terms…if such people exist, it is assumed that they must either be an insignificant minority or devious malefactors who are manipulating the ignorant masses in their own self-interest.

    An example of this attitude appeared on MSNBC back in August, with anchor Chris Hayes and Washington Post writer Dave Weigel avidly agreeing with one another about the characteristics of Trump supporters (of whom they don’t approve)…men without a college degree who have enough income to buy a boat (Hayes qualifies it as *white* men).  Personally, I tend to *admire* people who have managed to do ok or very well for themselves without the benefit of a college credential. (And anyone believing that a college degree necessarily implies that an individual has acquired a broad base of knowledge and thinking skills hasn’t been paying very good attention of late.)

    The snobbery we are seeing today is partly income-based. it is partly based on a faux-aristocratic contempt for people who work with their hands, and it is…more than any other single factor, I think…credential-based.

    Indeed, education-based credentials seem increasingly to fill the social role once filled by family connections.  In his outstanding autobiography, Tom Watson Jr of IBM mentions that in his youth he was interested in a local girl, but her mother forbade her to have anything to do with him because he didn’t come from an Old Family…the fact that his father was the founder of IBM, already a successful and prominent company, evidently wasn’t a substitute.  Such ‘really, not our sort’ thinking would today be more likely based on the college one attended than based on family lineage.

    Those expressing such attitudes exist in the Democratic Party in parallel with those who talk about their great concern for Working People. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, talked just recently about how physically tiring her work as a bartendress had been…and I don’t doubt that this was so…and asserted that Republicans don’t tend to have any experience doing such jobs.  Yet this same AOC posted a picture of her staring angrily at Joe Manchin–who one might think she would have considered as a possible ally on behalf of Working People–because he dared to question any Defund the Police policy.  And this same AOC helped ensure that Amazon, with the jobs it would have brought for those Working People, was not made welcome in her district.

    It appears that a lot of those to whom the we-care-about-working-people message is targeted aren’t believing it.

    (I’m not fond of the term ‘working class’, btw, it implies a fixed social structure and lack of mobility which is alien to American ideas.  The fact that Class terminology has become so common is a worrisome indicator.)

    Discuss, if so inclined.

     

    (classic song reference in the title)

     

    Posted in Academia, Britain, Education, Europe, Leftism, Society, Trump, USA | 134 Comments »