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    Regular and Irregular Channels

    Posted by David Foster on 18th November 2019 (All posts by )

    Some of the witnesses at the ongoing Congressional hearings seem quite disturbed at the use of “irregular channels” for decision-making and implementation, supplementing and bypassing the “regular” channels. (here, for example) Reminds me of a Churchill story…

    In February 1940, Churchill was not yet Prime Minister but rather was First Lord of the Admiralty. He received a letter from a father disappointed that his son had been turned down for a commission, despite his qualifications and his record. Churchill suspected class prejudice and wrote to the Second Sea Lord, saying that “Unless some better reasons are given to me, I shall have to ask my Naval Secretary to interview the boy on my behalf.”

    The Second Sea Lord, unhappy with the meddling from above, responded to the effect that it was inappropriate to question the decisions of “a board duly constituted.” To which Churchill replied:

    I do not at all mind “going behind the opinion of a board duly constituted” or even changing the board or its chairman if I think injustice has been done. How long is it since this board was re-modeled?… Who are the naval representatives on the board of selection? Naval officers should be well-represented. Action accordingly. Let me have a list of the whole board with the full record of each member and his date of appointment.

    General Louis Spears was present when Churchill, after taking the above hard-line, saw the candidates. After chatting with the boys, Churchill explained the matter to Spears:

    “They have been turned down for the very reason that should have gained them admission. They are mad keen on the Navy, they have it in their blood, they will make splendid officers. What could be better than that they should rise higher than their fathers did? It is in their fathers’ homes that they grew to love the Navy, yet they have been turned down because their fathers came from the lower deck,” and he pouted and glared with fury.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Current Events, History, Management, Miscellaneous, Organizational Analysis, Politics, Trump | 15 Comments »

    Robot Gets Hired, Tries Hard, But Can’t Do the Job

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

    At Boeing.

    Those fearing imminent mass unemployment driven by robots and AI should be following stories like this.  They also should be looking at the actual productivity numbers.

    See also the details of work and the realities of automation.

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Anniversary: The End of the Berlin Wall

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

    November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Peter Robinson, who drafted President Reagan’s speech including the line Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!, has some thoughts.

    Bill Brandt offers some remembrances and some video clips.

    Bill’s post mentioned Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland:  Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, which I reviewed here.

    An interesting website by a former East German MIG-21 pilot.

    Posted in Aviation, Book Notes, Germany, History, Leftism | 7 Comments »

    Retrotech — With a Future?

    Posted by David Foster on 7th November 2019 (All posts by )

    Before there were electronic digital computers, there were mechanical analog computers. Although now obsolete for practical computation, these devices might actually have an useful future ahead of them–in education.

    Mechanical analog computation (analog means that calculation is done by measuring rather than by counting) goes back to the Greek Antikythera mechanism (65 BC), which was used to predict the positions of heavenly bodies. The modern era of analog computing began with the work done by James Thompson and his brother William (Lord Kelvin) in the 1870s. First, James Thompson created a mechanical device that performs the calculus function of integration.

    Lord Kelvin applied this device…along with other mechanisms for addition and trigonometric functions…to create a mechanical tide-prediction system. These tide predictors had a pretty good run: the invention was announced in 1876, and some of these systems were still in use in the early 1970s!

    For those who haven’t studied calculus, integration can be thought of as a kind of continuous addition.  Imagine a hose with a fluctuating flow rate filling a pool: by integrating the rate of flow, you can calculate the volume of water added to the pool.

    The basic concept of a mechanical integrator is shown below.

    mechanical-integrator-modified

    If the vertical shaft is turned at a constant rate, and the small wheel is moved in and out according to the changing value of some some variable Y, then the rotation of the horizontal shaft Z will represent the integral of Y with respect to time.  If Y is the rate of flow of the a hose, Z will be the total volume  added to the pool. If Y represents the acceleration of a vehicle, then the output shaft will give that vehicle’s speed at any moment.  Connect the output to the input of another integrator, and you will get the distance traveled.

    Vannevar Bush, who would become Roosevelt’s science adviser during WWII, combined the integrator and other computing mechanisms to create a highly general mechanical computer, called a differential analyzer. Completed in 1931, it was not restricted to a single application, but could be programmed–with a wrench and screwdriver to alter the connections–for a wide range of problems. Complex chains of calculation were possible, including the ability for a result at one stage to be fed back as input at an earlier stage–for example, the speed of a simulated vehicle affects its air resistance, which in turn influences its acceleration…which integrates back to its speed.

    Other differential analyzers were built in the U.S.,  Norway, and Britain, and were used for applications including heat-flow analysis, electrical network stability analysis, soil-erosion studies, artillery firing table preparation, and studies of the loading and deflection of beams. It is rumored that a British analyzer was used in the planning for the bouncing-bomb attack on German hydroelectric dams during WWII. Differential analyzers appeared in several movies, including the 1951 film When Worlds Collide  (video clip). The ultimate in mechanical analog computation was the Rockefeller Differential Analyzer, a rather baroque (and very expensive) machine built in 1942. It was decommissioned in 1954, on the belief that the future of calculation would belong to the electronic computer, and especially the electronic digital computer.   Following the decommissioning, the mathematician Warren Weaver wrote:

    It seems rather a pity not to have around such a place as MIT a really impressive Analogue computer; for there is vividness and directness of meaning of the electrical and mechanical processes involved… which can hardly fail, I would think, to have a very considerable educational value. A Digital Electronic computer is bound to be a somewhat abstract affair, in which the actual computational processes are fairly deeply submerged.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Education, History, Science, Systems Analysis, Tech | 27 Comments »

    Movie Review: The Current War

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

    This movie is focused on the interaction among Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla in the competition to create and build out America’s…and the world’s…electrical infrastructure.  It has gotten mixed and generally not-very-enthusiastic reviews; I thought it was well-done and definitely worth seeing.  Visually, it is striking and sometimes even beautiful, thus worth seeing on the big screen.

    The movie gets the outline of the history right; also, I think, the essence of the characters.  Edison is a brilliant inventor and self-promoter who is committed to his DC-based distribution system and will do some more-than-questionable things to get it universally adopted.  Westinghouse, who had invented the railroad air brake (among other things) and already built a large company, sees the value of alternating current, which can be stepped up and down in voltage via transformers and hence can be economically transmitted over long distances.  Tesla, a Serbian immigrant and brilliant inventor, provides the missing link in the form of a practical motor that can run on AC power.  The relationships of Edison and Westinghouse with their respective wives are highlighted, and the future utility mogul Samuel Insull appears as Edison’s young secretary.

    I was happy to see the movie’s positive portrayal of Westinghouse, a great man who has tended to be overshadowed by the more-glamorous figures of Edison and Tesla.  (The legions of Tesla fans may be unhappy that Tesla did not get a more central role in the film.)

    If this movie sounds interesting to you, better see it soon; I don’t think it’s going to be in the theaters for very long.

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, Film, History, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Book Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

    Posted by David Foster on 27th October 2019 (All posts by )

    Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

    —-

    The idea of centralized economic planning is a very seductive one.  It just seems to make sense that such planning would lead to more efficiency…less waste…and certainly less unnecessary human suffering than an environment in which millions of decision-makers, many of them in competition with one another, are making their own separate and uncoordinated decisions, resulting in pointless product redundancy, economic cycles driving unemployment, and lots of other bad things.

    Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as seen from the inside.  The characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.”  Published in 2010, Red Plenty is now quite timely in view of the current vogue for socialism in American political discussion.

    Marx drew a nightmare picture of capitalism, when everything was produced only to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.  The alternative? A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

    How might this actually be accomplished? Stalin mocked the idea that planning an economy required much in the way of intellectual depth or effort.  Get the chain of command right, Stalin seemed to be saying, build it on the right ideological principles, and all that was left was a few technical details, a little bit of drudgery to be carried out by the comrades at Gosplan with the adding machines.  But it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

    Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is one of the lords of the Gosplan file room, in which there are hundreds of folders, each tracking the balances and plans for a particular commodity. A good man, who takes his job seriously, Maksim has risen as high as you could go at Gosplan before the posts become purely political appointments..his was the level at which competence was known to reach its ceiling…Not just a mechanical planner, he realizes that the file folders  cast only the loosest and most imperfect net over the prodigious output of the economy as the whole, and has worked to understand the stress points, the secret path dependencies of the plan.  His specific responsibility is the chemical and rubber sector, and he is particularly concerned, at the time when he enters the story, about problems in the viscose subsector.

    Arkhipov, Kosoy, and Mitrenko run one of the most important plants in the viscose supply chain, and they are three worried men.  The plan goals aren’t being met, and they know that the path to career death is separated by only a few percentage points of plan fulfillment from the other one, the upward path, the road to glory and local fame. (A couple of decades earlier, it wouldn’t have been just career death on the table.) This plant makes two viscose-derived products, yarn and tire cord.  The yarn line works fine, the tire cord line, not so much…but no problems with the machine can be found.  There is no prospect of getting a replacement machine in any relevant timeframe.

    Arkhipov and his associates come up with a plan to solve their problem…read the book to see what it is and how it turns out.

    Nikita Khrushchev, in September 1959, told a crowd that “the dreams cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.”  Modern technology, combined with the benefits of a planned economy would make it possible.

    Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment, of human needs.  

    The American exhibition in Moscow in mid-1959 (site of the “kitchen debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon) was attended by 3 million Soviets (including some of the characters in this book), and although many of them thought that the American claims of broad-based prosperity were exaggerated or worse, the experience surely helped feed the longing for a better life for the Soviet Union’s ordinary people.

    Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich pioneered the application of mathematics to the optimization of economic activities…these methods surfaced as a possible toolkit for the planning organizations circa 1960. Could these methods help achieve Khrushchev’s stated goal of broad-based prosperity?

    For example, consider several factories, producing a common set of products but with different efficiency characteristics.  Which products should be made by which factories in order to optimize overall efficiency? A set of equations can be constructed representing the constraints that must be observed–labor, machine utlization, etc–and the relative weighting of the variables to be optimized.  Although these techniques have been used to a considerable degree in capitalist countries, they would seem tailor-made for a starring role in a planned economy.  Selling the new methods in the Soviet Union, though, could be tricky:  the linear-programming term “shadow prices”, for example, sounded like something that might have politically-dangerous overtones of capitalism!

    One of the first applications involved potatoes, the distribution of same. The BESM (computer) is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country–only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error.  In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing, and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough sollution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver.

    And even in the planned Soviet economy, there is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow, the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhozniks sell the product from their private plots…The market’s clock speed is laughable.  It computes a the rate of a babushka in a headscare, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath…No wonder that Oscar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace “a primitive pre-electronic calculator.”

    So put the BESM to work minimizing distance that the potatoes have to travel..a proxy for efficiency and freshness:  price is not a consideration, since the state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years.  But BESM can only work with abstract potatoes: Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tublices–but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organizations…The economists recognize the difficulty of getting a computer model to mirror the world truly.  They distinguish between working at zadachi, ‘from the problem’, and of fotografii, ‘from the photograph’…This calculation, alas, is from the photograph.  It deals with potato delivery as it has been reported to Leonid Vitalevich and his colleagues.  There has been no time to visit the cold-stores, interview the managers, ride on the delivery trucks. But the program should still work.

    The author notes that “the idea that the computer had conclusively resolved the socialist calculation debate in socialism’s favour was very much a commonplace of the early sixties.”

    But despite all the planning paperwork, despite the attempts at computerization, people like Chekuskin remain essential to keep the Soviet economy functioning at all.  He is a fixer, he works the system to ensure that his customers–factories, for the most part–can get the parts and materials they need in order to keep operating.  Before the revolution, he was a salesman: now, the economic problem is not selling, but buying.  Chekuskin explains what a real salesman was, back in the day:

    You’re thinking of some fellow who works in a sales administration, sits by his phone all day long like a little king, licks his finger when he feels like it, and says, “You can have a litttle bit”…That’s not a salesman.  You see, the world used to be the other way up, and it used to be the buyers who sat around examining their fingernails, hard enough as that is to imagine.  A salesman was a poor hungry bastard with a suitcase, trying to shift something that people probably didn’t want, ’cause back in those days, people didn’t just get out the money and buy anything they could get their hands on.  They had to be talked into it.”

    But with Communism, the things changed.  Back then, people didn’t want to buy.  Now, they don’t want to sell.  There’s always that resistance to get past.  But the trick of it stays the same:  make a connection, build a relationship.

    Volodya, is a young propagandist recently assigned to the huge locomotive plant in Novocherkassk, a dismal town that also features a university.  Unfortunately, it was classified by the planners as a “college town”, in need of the calorific intake required to lift pencils and wipe blackboards, but there were forty thousand people living and working in the industrial zone out by the tracks now, and between the students and the loco workers, a locust would have been hard put to it to find a spare crumb. White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of enormous queues.  Sausages were as rare a comets.  Pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on half-washed plates.

    Eventually, people can’t stand it anymore–and decisions by two separate planning organizations have the result that on the very same day, food prices are increased and so are the production quotas at the locomotive factory.   There is a raucous mass protest, featuring signs like MEAT, BUTTER, AND PAY and CUT UP KHRUSHCHEV FOR SAUSAGES.  The loco plant manager, Korochkin, does not handle the situation well, and the rage grows.

    The ensuing catastrophe is vividly described as it is observed by the horrified Volodya.  Troops open fire on the protestors:  26 people are killed an 87 wounded.  Death sentences and long prison terms are handed down.

    This was a real event:  it happened in 1962.  News about the events did not appear in the state-controlled press for thirty years.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Capitalism, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Leftism, Management, Markets and Trading, Russia, Systems Analysis, Tech | 37 Comments »

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

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

    This month marks the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.

    Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

    Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

    At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

    Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

    Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours

    Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

    Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted  ‘Fire!’  that was quite another matter.

    Kirillov:

    There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.

    At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.

    I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.

    Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.

    It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.

    Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:

    Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.

    (cross-posted at Ricochet)

    Posted in Book Notes, Cuba, History, Russia, Space, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Journalists

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

    Financial Times recently had an article about a projected luxury dirigible.  Being an airship fan, I wish the venture success. I was struck, though, by a paragraph in the article contrasting the planned aircraft, called the Airlander, with the airships of the 1930s with their “flammable hydrogen fuels.”

    Uh…no.  None of the airships of the 1930s used hydrogen as a fuel.  Some of them used hydrogen as a lifting gas, which is a totally different thing from the fuel consumed to power the craft forward. And most American airships didn’t use hydrogen for any purpose…the American airships that came to bad ends mostly did so as a result of weather-related structural failure…which point, one would have thought, might have been relevant to someone writing about the possible future of airships.

    But airships are a pretty esoteric subject, after all, so maybe it’s unreasonable to expect a journalist to spend (or get his assistant to spend) half an hour actually learning something about whatever he is writing about.  So let’s talk about something that isn’t esoteric at all, but rather about as timely and important as it gets.  Energy.

    I’ve noticed that in articles about energy storage…of which there have been a lot…the writer rarely seems to grasp that kilowatts are not the same thing as kilowatt-hours, and you can’t express the storage capacity of a battery or other storage system in kilowatts. It would be like stating the capacity of your car’s gas tank in horsepower.  (The same principle applies to megawatts and megawatt-hours, or gigawatts and gigawatt-hours)  Yet all the time, I see articles…not just in the general media but also in the business media…talking about the wonderfulness of a battery or whatever that can store 4 megawatts.

    For example, here’s a Barrons article referring to a town which has installed batteries “that can hold two megawatts of power.”  Actually, the batteries at this facility can hold 3.9 megawatt-hours of energy…the 2 megawatts of power is about the rate at which energy can be added to or drawn from the system, and has nothing to say about the amount stored.  So if you withdraw power at 2 megawatts, you can do so for a little under 2 hours before the battery storage is exhausted. You need the megawatt-hour number to know that; “2 megawatts” tells you nothing about the storage capacity.

    Turning now to television journalism:  I think Tucker Carlson is far superior to most TV commentators in terms of focusing on issues in some depth, rather than just obsessively circling in on whatever is hottest at the moment.  But when recently introducing a guest who was going to talk about a highly-questionable sale to China that was made during the Clinton administration, he said that sale had been of “machine parts.”  Actually, it was of machine tools, as the guest correctly explained.

    Machine tools are one of the essential cornerstones of industry, and have been for a long time.  Shouldn’t a person who frequently writes and/or speaks about economic issues know what a machine tool is and why it matters?  Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but I think Tucker’s “machine parts” phrasing indicates that he has no such awareness.

    Ben Rhodes, an Obama operative, said of the current generation of reporters:  “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

    No doubt true of a large number of those younger reporters who Rhodes manipulated while feeling contempt for. But there are journalists–older and younger–who do have a pretty good grasp of history, geography, and comparative political systems…some of them even have some education or reading in political philosophy.  But even among these, knowledge of technology–and by “technology” I do not mean just “computer stuff”–is pretty close to nonexistent.

    And with the vastly increased influence of government over all aspects of the economy–and the even greater (much greater!) influence being sought by the current Democratic Party–such knowledge is pretty important.

    Posted in Aviation, Education, Energy & Power Generation, Media, Tech, Transportation | 26 Comments »

    What, Exactly, Is CNN?

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

    …and what are NBC and ABC?

    When referencing these networks…for example, when talking about CNN’s increasingly-extreme political bias, ABC’s running of a video supposedly from Syria which was actually from Kentucky, or the reports about widespread abuse of women at  NBC, people tend to simply refer to them as “CNN”, “ABC”, or “NBC”, as if they were independent entities.  But they’re not.

    CNN is owned by AT&T.  NBC is owned by Comcast, and ABC is owned by Disney.

    The history is that CNN was part of Turner Broadcasting, which merged with Time-Warner in 1996.  Following a whole host of acquisition and divestiture transactions (which included a very expensive experience with AOL), Warner Media was acquired by AT&T in 2018.  NBC was acquired by GE in 1986 as part of its reacquisition of RCA; the networks was put into a joint venture with Comcast in 2009, and the GE share of the venture was bought out by Comcast in 2013. Disney acquired ABC in 1996 as part of its acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc.

    Given how these entities have been shuffled around, it may be understandable that people refer to them simply by the names of the networks; still, I think the proper way to refer to CNN would be “CNN, a subsidiary of telecommunications giant AT&T” and similarly for the others.

    Posted in Business, Media, Miscellaneous, Tech | 15 Comments »

    “The Katakombe Stood Upright”

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

    …as did South Park

    In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, Sebastian Haffner was working as a junior lawyer (refendar) in the Prussian High Court, the Kammergericht. He was comforted by the continuity of the legal process:

    The newspapers might report that the constitution was in ruins. Here every paragraph of the Civil Code was still valid and was mulled over and analyzed as carefully as ever…The Chancellor could daily utter the vilest abuse against the Jews; there was nonetheless still a Jewish Kammergerichtsrat (high court judge) and member of our senate who continued to give his astute and careful judgments, and these judgments had the full weight of the law and could set the entire apparatus of the state in motion for their enforcement–even if the highest office-holder of that state daily called their author a ‘parasite’, a ‘subhuman’ or a ‘plague’.

    But on March 31st, the Nazis came to the Kammergericht. Haffner was in the library, reading some document on which he had to give an opinion. There was a clatter of footsteps in the corridor, shouts, and doors banging. Brown uniforms surged in, and the leader announced that all “non-Aryans” must leave immediately. One brown shirt approached Haffner and asked “Are you Aryan?”

    Before I had a chance to think, I had said, ‘Yes.’ He took a close look at my nose–and retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat….I had failed my very first test.

    As I left the Kammergericht it stood there, grey, cool and calm as ever, set back from the street in its distinguished setting. There was nothing to show that, as an institution, it had just collapsed.

    Haffner tells us that even during Germany’s previous eras of autocracy, there had been at least some tradition of judicial independence, represented by the Kammergericht. He relates the story of Frederick the Great and the miller of Potsdam: The king wanted a windmill removed because it interfered with the view from his palace, and offered to buy it. The miller refused, and the king threatened to dispossess him. Challenging this royal version of eminent domain, the miller said, “Just so, your majesty, but there’s still the Kammergericht in Berlin.” (When Haffner wrote, the mill was still there) All that was over, now.

    It was strange to sit in the Kammergericht again, the same courtroom, the same seats, acting as if nothing had happened. The same ushers stood at the doors and ensured, as ever, that the dignity of the court was not disturbed. Even the judges were for the most part the same people. Of course, the Jewish judge was no longer there. He had not even been dismissed. He was an old gentleman and had served under the Kaiser, so he had been moved to an administrative position at some Amtsgericht (lower court). His position on the senate was taken by an open-faced, blond young Amtsgerichtsrat, with glowing cheeks, who did not seem to belong among the grave Kammergerichtsrats…It was whispered that in private the newcomer was something high up in the SS.

    The new judge didn’t seem to know much about law, but asserted his points in a “fresh, confident voice.”

    We Refendars, who had just passed our exams, exchanged looks while he expounded. At last the president of the senate remarked with perfect politeness, ‘Colleague, could it be that you have overlooked paragraph 816 of the Civil Code?’ At which the new high court judge looked embarrassed…leafed through his copy of the code and then admitted lightly, ‘Oh, yes. Well, then it’s just the other way around.’ Those were the triumphs of the older law.

    There were, however, other cases–cases in which the newcomer did not back down…stating that here the paragraph of the law must yield precedence; he would instruct his co-judges that the meaning was more important than the letter of the law…Then, with the gesture of a romantic stage hero, he would insist on some untenable decision. It was piteous to observe the faces of the older Kammergerichtsrats as this went on. They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted a paper-clip or a piece of blotting paper. They were used to failing candidates for the Assessor examination for spouting the kind of nonsense that was now being presented as the pinnacle of wisdom; but now this nonsense was backed by the full power of the state, by the threat of dismissal for lack of national reliability, loss of livelihood, the concentration camp…They begged for a little understanding for the Civil Code and tried to save what they could.

    A few people dared to speak up against the regime, but not many…and they were not always the people that one would have predicted. On the evening of the day when Jews were evicted from the Kammergericht, Haffner went with his girlfriend to a nightclub called the Katacombe. The master of ceremonies was a comic actor and satirical cabaret performer named Werner Fink:

    His act remained full of harmless amiability in a country where these qualities were on the liquidation list. This harmless amiability hid a kernel of real, indomitable courage. He dared to speak openly about the reality of the Nazis, and that in the middle of Germany. His patter contained references to concentration camps, the raids on people’s homes, the general fear and general lies. He spoke of these things with infinitely quiet mockery, melancholy, and sadness. Listening to him was extraordinarily comforting.

    In the morning, the Prussian Kammergericht, with its tradition of hundreds of years, had ignobly capitulated before the Nazis. In the same evening, a small troop of artistes, with no tradition to back them up, demonstrated the courage to speak forbidden thoughts. “The Kammergericht had fallen but the Katakombe stood upright.”

    As, in 2019, did South Park.

    Posted in China, Germany, History, USA | 10 Comments »

    So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention? (updated)

    Posted by David Foster on 7th October 2019 (All posts by )

    Much ink and many photons have been spent discussing Russia’s attempts to influence (or at least disrupt) the American 2016 Presidential campaign.  Meanwhile…

    Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent out a tweet which said “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”  Tencent, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, reacted by suspending business relations with the Rockets, and is offering fans who purchased a year-long pass to watch Rockets games the chance to switch it to a different team. A number of other Chinese companies have pulled sponsorship deals with the Rockets as well.  Morey issued an apology which said in part ” was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

    And from last year:  here’s an appalling story about how anger from the Chinese government led Marriott Corporation to fire an employee who had ‘liked’ a tweet which congratulated the company for listing Tibet as a country, along with Hong Kong and Taiwan….of course, the Chinese regime considers Tibet to be a part of China, not a separate country.

    China forced Marriott to suspend all online booking for a week at its nearly 300 Chinese hotels. A Chinese leader also demanded the company publicly apologize and “seriously deal with the people responsible,” the Journal reported.

    And boy, did Marriott ever apologize. Craig Smith, president of the hotel chain’s Asian division, told the China Daily that Marriott had committed two significant mistakes — presumably the survey listing Tibet and the liked tweet — that “appeared to undermine Marriott’s long-held respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

    He announced an “eight-point rectification plan” that included education for hotel employees across the globe and stricter supervision.

    And the Marriott executive said this to China’s most-read English-language newspaper: “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”

    (More here…according to this article, the Chinese suppression of Marriott bookings was in response to the initial listing of Tibet as a country rather than to the tweet approving of this listing)

    The Chinese economy is, shall we say, a little more dynamic than that of Russia, so the government of China has much more ability to strong-arm American corporations (in general) than does the Putin regime.

    Turning now from the hotel industry to the movie industry, Richard Gere says that Chinese pressure due to his stand on Tibetan independence has led to his being dropped from big Hollywood movies.  Also:

    Gere’s activities have not just made Hollywood apparently reluctant to cast him in big films, he says they once resulted in him being banished from an independently financed, non-studio film which was not even intended for a Chinese release.

    “There was something I was going to do with a Chinese director, and two weeks before we were going to shoot, he called saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it,’” Gere recalled. “We had a secret phone call on a protected line. If I had worked with this director, he, his family would never have been allowed to leave the country ever again, and he would never work.”

    See also How China’s Censors Influence Hollywood.  Because the Chinese market is so large…(Fast and Furious 7 pulled in $388 million in China, more than it made in the US)…the influence of the Chinese regime on US film production and distribution has become immense.

    In recent years, foreign filmmakers have also gone out of their way not to provoke the Communist Party. For instance, the 2012 remake of the Cold War action movie, Red Dawn, originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town. After filming was complete, though, the moviemakers went back and turned the attacking army into North Koreans, which seemed a safer target, at least until last year’s hack of Sony Pictures.

    and

    Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island at the City University of New York, worries China’s growing market power is giving the Communist Party too much leverage over Hollywood.

    “The Chinese censors can act as world film police on how China can be depicted, how China’s government can be depicted, in Hollywood films,” she says. “Therefore, films critical of the Chinese government will be absolutely taboo.”

    In the late 1990s, when China’s box office was still small, Hollywood did make movies that angered the Communist Party, such as Seven Years In Tibet, about the life of the Dalai Lama, and Red Corner, a Richard Gere thriller that criticized China’s legal system. Given the importance of the China market now, Zhu says those movies wouldn’t get financing today.

    Plus, Chinese companies have snapped up Hollywood studios, theaters and production companies.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Business, China, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Environment, Film, Media, Science, Tech, USA | 28 Comments »

    Sputnik Anniversary Rerun–Book Review: Rockets and People

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2019 (All posts by )

    Today being the 62nd  anniversary of the Sputnik launch, here’s a rerun of a post about a very interesting book.

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Boris Chertok’s career in the Soviet aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

    Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

    Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

    Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

    So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

    Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

    *Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

    *Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

    *Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

    *Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

    *Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

    *Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

    *Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

    *Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

    Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

    Some vignettes, themes, and excerpts I thought were particularly interesting:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech | Comments Off on Sputnik Anniversary Rerun–Book Review: Rockets and People

    Trump and the Ukrainian Translator

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

    Margaret Ball suggests that the real issue identified by the Trump-Ukraine transcript is the pain that was imposed on the translator who had to translate Trump’s words…which at least appear to be pretty much stream-of-consciousness…into Ukrainian!  Plentiful vodka, she says, was surely required to recover from the experience.

    It strikes me that a profession is kind of like a language, as is a social milieu.  Many of those who find President Trump offensive, I suspect, find it jarring and inappropriate that he doesn’t speak in the forms that they would normally expect from one in his position, and they find that translating his speech to their accustomed verbal frames of reference to be as difficult and disorienting as the Ukrainian translator likely found Trump’s communication in English to be.

    Not only is Trump’s style of speech off-putting to many, so is his mode of thought.  Most national journalists, academics,  and “public intellectuals” are deductive thinkers, who need to put everything into a framework that they have adopted.  Trump, on the other hand, is largely an inductive, intuitive, and pattern-recognizing thinker.  Years ago, I found The Art of the Deal to be a somewhat frustrating read, despite my strong professional interest in the topic.  I am a more deductive thinker and communicator than Trump…but I have enough of the inductive/intuitive/pattern-recognizing mode to be able to understand and appreciate what Trump is doing.  Most of the journalists, academics, and “public intellectuals” do not.

    Some types of people also find it disconcerting when people attain their positions in any manner other than the conventionally-approved course.  Here’s Andy Kessler, writing in the WSJ a few days ago about his time at Morgan Stanley:

    ““What year were you?” a colleague asked me years ago. “Huh? Year?” I replied. “What year at HBS?” H-B-what? “What year did you graduate from Harvard Business School?” Oh, I get it now. “I didn’t go to HBS,” I told him. “Actually, I don’t have an M.B.A.” After a long pause and scrunched-up face, he asked, “Well, then how the hell did you get a job here?” As I walked away, I murmured under my breath, “Maybe I earned it.””

    This also…the negative feeling about somebody who didn’t get there in the way one is supposed to get there…also plays a role in hostile attitudes toward Trump.

     

    Posted in Academia, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Media, Miscellaneous, Trump, USA | 17 Comments »

    The Drivers of Political Cruelty and Arrogance

    Posted by David Foster on 27th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Stuart Schneiderman had a post on the question:  Should Government Produce Happiness?   One commenter said:

    We might say Nazi Germany tried to produce happiness by promoting national pride, and racial pride. They created myths of superiority and suddenly if you had blond hair and blue eyes, you instantly gained status and could walk down the street with other special people and scheme collective revenge against the people who are wrongfully trying to hold you back. This suggest populist leaders at least are good at identifying scapegoats and unifying people against common enemies. You can project all your shortcomings on your external enemies and righteously hate them for it. Certainly it must feels like happiness when you believe your specialness (personal and collective) will soon be honored, and you’ll work very hard to make it happen.

    I’m not sure that “populist” is really a proper description of a political movement which stood for absolute top-down rule…but there’s no question that the Nazi ideas of racial superiority led to a feeling of ‘specialness’ on the part of many if not most followers.  Also, many people who did not have a strong affinity for Nazi ideology…or any affinity at all…still felt a strong pull toward the movement, for reasons of a need for group belonging.  As an example,  I saw a documentary in which a strongly anti-Nazi German said that despite his clear recognition that Naziism was evil, he had still felt a sense of loss and by not being part of the circle of warmth that he perceived in the Nazi rallies.

    But, as I noted in the comments to Stuart’s post, it is serious mistake to identify these motivations with only “right wing” movements such as Naziism. In-group identification and arrogance, the use of scapegoats, and the evil pleasures of political cruelty…all these things are major features of today’s “progressive’ movement.  I have documented many examples of this in prior posts, for example here.  While some have claimed that the violence, intolerance, and harassment so common on the Left is a reaction to Trump, there was clearly a lot of this going on long before Trump became a political factor.  It was going on, especially, in American’s universities, and it should have been clear that this toxic behavior would spread beyond the campus into the wider American society.

    Sarah Hoyt:

    If I could communicate just one thing, across the increasing divide of language and thought to the left it would be this: that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you’re running someone down is not righteousness.  It’s just the feeling apes get when they run off another ape.

    If you’re part of a band and all of you were piling on an outsider — or an insider who was just declared an outsider and run off — you’ll also feel very connected to your band, and a feeling of being loved and belonging.  It’s not real. It’s the result of a “reward” rush of endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine that flood your body after stress and a perceived “victory.”  Oxytocin, particularly, promotes a feeling of bonding with those around you.

    Just remember, as you’re high fiving each other and believing that something that feels so good has to be good and morally “just” you could be the victim tomorrow.  Because the feelings don’t last, and that rush of “righteousness and victory” is addictive. Those who are your comrades today will be looking for someone to kick in the face tomorrow. And it really could be you.

    I’ve previously quoted some related thoughts from the American writer John Dos Passos.  In his younger years, he was a man of the Left, and, like many leftists and some others he was very involved with the Sacco and Vanzetti case.  But he was more than a little disturbed by some of those that shared his viewpoint.  Describing one protest he attended, he wrote:

    From sometime during this spring of 1926 of from the winter before a recollection keeps rising to the surface. The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

    I agree with their protest:  I too was horrified by this outrage.  I’m not one either to stand by and see injustice done.  But do I agree enough?  A chill goes down my spine..Whenever I remember the little scene I tend to turn it over in my mind.  Why did my hackles rise at the sight of the faces of these good people coming out of the hall? 

    Was it a glimpse of the forming of a new class conformity that like all class conformities was bent on riding the rest of us?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Civil Society, Current Events, Deep Thoughts, History, Human Behavior, Society, Tech, Trump, USA | 26 Comments »

    When They Came for Those Other People, Updated

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

    In 2015, I posted the poem “Into Our Town the Hangman Came,” with comments about its relevance to the current political situation.  I’ve now reposted this poem at Ricochet, with additional commentary about the “Cancel Culture” and a link to a relevant book review by Roger Scruton.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Leftism, USA | 16 Comments »

    Not-Really-Summer-Anymore Rerun: Coming Soon, to Places Near You?

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd September 2019 (All posts by )

    (Summer is now officially over, but I thought this story from Rose Wilder Lane, whose work I reviewed and excerpted a couple of days ago, was worthy of a repost)

    In 1926, Rose and her friend Helen Dore Boylston, both then living in Paris, decided to buy a Model T Ford and drive it to Albania. Their adventure is chronicled in the book Travels With Zenobia.  (Helen’s nickname was “Troub”, which stood for “trouble.”)

    Acquisition of the car–a “glamorized” 1926 model which was maroon in color rather than the traditional Ford black–went smoothly. Acquisition of the proper government documentation allowing them to actually drive it–not so much:

    Having bought this splendid Ford, my friend and I set out to get permission to drive it, and to drive it out of Paris and out of France. We worked separately, to make double use of time. For six weeks we worked, steadily, every day and every hour the Government offices were open. When they closed, we met to rest in the lovely leisure of a cafe and compared notes and considered ways of pulling wires…

    One requirement was twelve passport pictures of that car…But this was a Ford, naked from the factory; not a detail nor a mark distinguished it from the millions of its kind; yet I had to engage a photographer to take a full-radiator-front picture of it, where it still stood in the salesroom, and to make twelve prints, each certified to be a portrait of that identical car. The proper official pasted these, one by one, in my presence, to twelve identical documents, each of which was filled out in ink, signed and counter-signed, stamped and tax-stamped; and, of course, I paid for them…

    After six hard-working weeks, we had all the car’s papers. Nearly an inch think they were, laid flat. Each was correctly signed and stamped, each had in addition the little stamp stuck on, showing that the tax was paid that must be paid on every legal document; this is the Stamp tax that Americans refused to pay. I believe we had license plates besides; I know we had drivers’ licenses.

    Gaily at last we set out in our car, and in the first block two policemen stopped us…Being stopped by the police was not unusual, of course. The car’s papers were in its pocket, and confidently I handed them over, with our personal papers, as requested.

    The policemen examined each one, found it in order, and noted it in their little black books. Then courteously they arrested us.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Europe, France, History, Humor, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy | 9 Comments »

    Summer Rerun—Hoffer on Scribes and Bureaucrats

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

    Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status…The explosive component in the contemporary scene is not the clamor of the masses but the self-righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities. This army of scribes is clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated. They hanker for the scribe’s golden age, for a return to something like the scribe-dominated societies of ancient Egypt, China, and the Europe of the Middle Ages. There is little doubt that the present trend in the new and renovated countries toward social regimentation stems partly from the need to create adequate employment for a large number of scribes…Obviously, a high ratio between the supervisory and the productive force spells economic inefficiency. Yet where social stability is an overriding need the economic waste involved in providing suitable positions for the educated might be an element of social efficiency.


    and

    It has often been stated that a social order is likely to be stable so long as it gives scope to talent. Actually, it is the ability to give scope to the untalented that is most vital in maintaining social stability…For there is a tendency in the untalented to divert their energies from their own development into the management, manipulation, and probably frustration of others. They want to police, instruct, guide, and meddle. In an adequate society, the untalented should be able to acquire a sense of usefulness and of growth without interfering with the development of talent around them. This requires, first, an abundance of opportunities for purposeful action and self-advancement. Secondly, a wide diffusion of technical and social skills so that people will be able to work and manage their affairs with a minimum of tutelage. The scribe mentality is best neutralized by canalizing energies into purposeful and useful pursuits, and by raising the cultural level of the whole population so as to blur the dividing line between the educated and the uneducated…We do not know enough to suit a social pattern to the realization of all the creative potentialities inherent in a population. But we do know that a scribe-dominated society is not optimal for the full unfolding of the creative mind.

    –Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change

    (This essay was published in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Hoffer was talking here not principally about the United States but about what were then called “underdeveloped countries.”)

    (2019 update)  Also, Francis Bacon noted four hundred years ago that one reason for sedition and mutiny in any polity was breeding more scholars than preferment can take off…A modern translation of might be “graduating more PhDs than have any hope of getting tenure,” or, more generally, “graduating more people with degrees, and especially advanced degrees, than can use those degrees to pay for the cost of getting same.”

    The extended Bacon quote:  “Therefore the multiplying of nobility, and other degrees of quality, in an over proportion to the common people, doth speedily bring a state to necessity; and so doth likewise an overgrown clergy; for they bring nothing to the stock; and in like manner, when more are bred scholars, than preferments can take off.”

    Posted in Academia, Civil Society, Economics & Finance, Education, Political Philosophy | 5 Comments »

    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 | 13 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 | 7 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 »