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  • Archive for the 'Book Notes' Category

    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 | 3 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 »

    10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 10th September 2019 (All posts by )

    I listened to a podcast interviewing David Epstein, author of Range, that came out earlier this year. He mentioned that the original 1993 study of violinists and pianists excelling on the basis of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before age 20 has recently failed to replicate. Both the NYTimes and The Guardian overstate his conclusion in their headlines, but listening to him myself, Epstein did state pretty strongly that the 10,000 hours research is not established and should not be considered to be demonstrated. He leans more to genetic causes, which is unsurprising from the author of the bestselling The Sports Gene, and to including “practice variability,” such as playing different sports (or with a different ball or on a different size court), or in other fields, reading outside your area of expertise, or interacting with people who aren’t like you. I saw a similarity to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility, especially hormesis.

     
    I decided decades ago that it was not necessary to be a massive generalist to have your brain work properly, but that it is an advantage to have at least one endeavor that is quite different from your career or main focus. A mathematician who also has a fascination with Civil War studies is not diluting his mathematical abilities, but enhancing them.  I didn’t have the reasoning behind that quite right, I now think, though the principle does hold.  I thought in terms of activating and developing various parts of one’s brain, which is why I was so intrigued with the Graduation 2010 project in Daviess County, KY.  That may still turn out to be so, but has not been demonstrated.  What does seem to be happening is that the individual has a greater library of analogies and strategies to draw from when a problem grows difficult. I suspect there is a limit to this.  In fact, as a massive generalist myself, I can assure that there is a limit. Yet a full library of analogies can be quite useful.

     

    And notice, the violinists who practiced less still practiced a whole lot.  That’s worth remembering.  One of the best had practiced “only” 4,000 hours before age 20, but that’s still equivalent to working full-time at it for two years. Malcolm Gladwell and others may be wrong that there is something magical about 10,000 hours, and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert, but those who excel do seem to have a heckuva lot of deliberate practice.
     
    Unsurprisingly, the people who did the original study do not feel this undermines their work in the least. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA, while the other thought that practice was the most important, but not only factor.  I don’t know how strongly they stated things in 1993, and if Gladwell overstated their conclusions then.

    Posted in Book Notes, Miscellaneous | 11 Comments »

    The Way Things Were and Are

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 4th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Separately, the Daughter Unit and I watched a series on Netflix (don’t hate on us, there’s still some good stuff there, and I don’t want to bail out until we’ve milked it dry) about the last Czars of Russia – specifically the series which mixed fairly serious commentary about the Russian Revolution with interestingly high-end reenactments of events in the life of the last czar and his family. (Seriously, though – I doubt very much that Nicky and Alix made mad hot whoopee on a fur coat underneath his official czarsorial desk, while the household staff made a heroic effort to ignore the amatory noises coming from behind closed doors. Just my .02. She was a Victorian, for Ghod’s sake. Really; Queen V.’s granddaughter. Who privately thought that Dear Alix wasn’t in the least up to the challenge of being Czarina of all the Russians; Alix may have waxed poetically amatory about her affection and trust in Father Grigory Rasputin, but to do the nasty on the floor, in daylight? Even with your wedded husband? Just nope. Nope.)
    I will accept that the orgiastic interludes involving Rasputin were likely and wholly believable. And that Nicky and Alix loved each other, that their four daughters and son with medical issues all loved each other with a passionate devotion that lasts through this world and the next. The last shattering sequences in the Ipatiav House rings true. That was the way it was, and that was how it ended. (I reviewed a book on this, here.)
    I was meditating on all of this – with a consideration towards royalty; the old-fashioned kind, and the new-mint variety. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Book Notes, Civil Society, Conservatism, Culture, Current Events, Deep Thoughts, History, Leftism, Media, Tea Party | 18 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    The Ideological Turing Test

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

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

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

    Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

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

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

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

    Witness: In a way.

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Summer Rerun: Jeff Sypeck’s Gargoyle Poems

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

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

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

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

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

    Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Summer Rerun — Book Review: Life in a Soviet Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    More Heinlein Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Yeah, I did once.  I caught a cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

    National Conservatism

    Posted by Grurray on 17th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Here is Peter Thiel’s keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference, if you haven’t seen it yet. His accusations about Google’s disloyalty are front and center. I’m not sure what to think about that particular part. There’s no doubt that Google has a socially liberal, internationalist bent that favors cooperation with China at the expense of domestic interests. On the other hand, if we’re singling out companies and industries that have pursued profits that undermined American values, there are plenty to go around.

    Most of his other points are spot on. As a nation we chose bits over atoms, and it did not turn out well for a large segment of America. He has some scathing comments about the American dream and higher education that are hard to argue with, while approaching a nihilism that we don’t normally associate with conservatism.

    The conference was organized by Yoram Hazony, political philosopher and author of the excellent book The Virtue of Nationalism, that I highly recommend.

    Posted in Book Notes, Conservatism, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society | 9 Comments »

    In the Matter of Epstein

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th July 2019 (All posts by )

    You know, it has gotten to the point where one honestly can’t be cynical enough. I thought I was pretty hard-bitten and un-shockable after two decades in the military, and a long snorkel through the vagaries of history (in a purely amateur capacity, meaning for a deep love of the topic rather than the commonly accepted imputation of being hap-hazard and imprecise) but the efforts of the Establishment Media Complex to tie Jeffrey “Humbert Humbert” Epstein to the Donald (AKA the God-Emperor) are … risible. It’s as of they are all channeling Veruca Salt, stamping their little feet, turning tantrum-red in the face, insisting that Orange-Man-Bad just has to be implicated, just because he once said something neutral-to-complimentary about a man who apparently occupied the same (elevated) social circles. Well, never mind that The Donald subsequently got Epstein thrown out of a golf club and banned from Mar-a-Largo for his tendency to perv on underage girls therein, and additionally was generous in cooperating with lawyers acting on behalf of the aforesaid perved-upon teenagers … Orange Man Bad, just because.
    The tilt of this kind of coverage is so transparent; among those of us who have been paying attention to the Establishment Media Complex it seems like just another one of those torpedoes aimed at Trump circling around and holing those who have launched it well below the credibility waterline. And l’affaire Epstein is also reminiscent of the Harvey Weinstein imbroglio, wherein a lot of comfortably positioned Hollywood personalities were reminded forcibly that most ordinary Americans view a powerful boss demanding sexual services from underlings with considerable horror. In the case of Hollywood, though, I’d be willing to bet most of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual conquests engaged willingly with the man, and moreover, got what they wanted (juicy roles, fame and fortune) from the deal. But still – the spectacle of those personalities subsequently having the gall to hector the rest of us on an assortment of moral issues … splinter, logs, removal of same from eyes, anyone? Likely it’s been the same with Epstein, only in the political frame, rather than the strictly entertainment one. It’s already established that former president Bill Clinton was a more-than-frequent flier on Mr. Epstein’s personal private jet. The revelation that Mr. Epstein had many … many… many friends in political high places? Well, THAT should be interesting… Discuss as you will, and have insight into this.

    PS – the reference to Humbert Humbert reminds me irresistibly of the verses in this small tome:

    “Humbert gloats: His nymphet
    Is “ineffable” (and yet
    Effable as she can get):
    Twelve year-old Lolita, kept
    By this horny nympholept
    Clear across the country schlepped… (middle verses omitted in the interests of space)
    …By succumbing in his cell
    Waiting trial. It’s just as well:
    He has earned his private hell
    Not for him apotheosis
    In whose frog-eyed diagnosis
    Life is just a pederoisis

    Posted in Book Notes, Conservatism, Crime and Punishment, Diversions, Humor, Leftism, Media | 87 Comments »

    Bernie Sanders Won the Debate

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 4th July 2019 (All posts by )

    (WSJ: Bernie Sanders Won the Debate)
     
    —-

    The 20 candidates in the Democratic debates on June 26 & 27 accepted Sanders’s fundamental vision of Democratic Socialism.

    Bernie Sanders’s June 12 speech at George Washington University proposing “a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights (EBR)” to “a decent job that pays a living wage; quality health care; complete (higher) education; affordable housing; a clean environment; and a secure retirement” all “regardless of his or her income” started a competition among the current democratic candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination with promises of free stuff. This new Democratic socialism makes two promises:

    “It is free to the masses.”

    “If you like your democratic system of government, you can keep it.”

    This isn’t new and isn’t true.

    The ideological Cold War between the socialist totalitarian countries and the capitalist social democracies ended with the economic and political bankruptcy of virtually all of the former. The latter expanded their welfare states by taxing the economic fruits of capitalism, contracting when going too far, with symptoms including declining investment and innovation and rising public deficits and debt burdens. The proposed EBR to expand the welfare state to socialist extremes while maintaining democracy will erode both living standards and liberty.

    The Unintended Consequences of the Economic Bill of Rights

    The market system is based upon individuals responding to incentives, mostly embodied in market prices. Contemporary economists have done Nobel-worthy research demonstrating that individuals don’t always respond rationally. But the EBR promising free or cheap stuff well below cost with wages and income determined well above productivity is incompatible with a market economy and individual liberty. It would severely distort work and consumption incentives: already declining labor force participation would collapse and productivity stagnation would worsen. Costs of health care, education and housing would rise. The Green New Deal environmental proposal would cost up to $100 trillion while providing negligible environmental benefit. Private household saving would shrink further with the right to a secure retirement.

    States that raise income taxes on high net worth businesses and/or firms face an exodus of both. Individuals and firms similarly shift their tax residence outside the U.S. reducing U.S. domestic innovation. Trade deficits widen. The cost of the EBR exceeds the revenue from these types of taxes by orders of magnitude. The progressive states are already voting themselves into bankruptcy, anticipating a federal bailout.

    Modern Monetary Theory: Old Fashioned Money Printing

    To avoid the political consequences of massive middle class taxation, the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) promoted by a Sanders campaign economic advisor proposes debt financing. Wall Street prognosticators forecast the end of the debt supercycle in 2011 and the collapse of the international monetary system in 2014, going code red. But the debt supercycle has continued, so proponents of the MMT assume that interest rates will remain low indefinitely so the cost can be financed with no long term consequence, whether bought by domestic or foreign creditors or the Federal Reserve.

    They may be right about America’s creditors continuing to accept debt in the near term, but excessive debt always ends, suddenly and badly: the longer it goes on the bigger the bust. As the world’s reserve currency the debt can’t simply be inflated away. The consequences of a U.S. international default, no matter how delivered, would be catastrophic.

    Democratic Socialism and Individual Freedom

    The socialist EBR is the responsibility of the administrative state, which requires totalitarian political power to deliver. What, then, do democratic socialists mean by “democracy”?

    The ancient Greek city-states began experimenting with democracy (literally, “people power” in Greek) about 2500 years ago, limited to males selected on merit. After about a century of experimentation, Greek philosophers concluded that democracy was a form of mob tyranny that undermined individual freedom and the rule of law. United States exceptionalism is rooted in the U.S. Constitution, an experiment in a representative federal republic held in check by a limited list of enumerated powers to protect individual freedoms and prevent mob rule.

    The extension of voting rights to former slaves – and over a half century later to women– was overdue. The 14th Amendment was necessary to restrict the ability of Southern states from inhibiting their voting rights but has since been interpreted to give the federal government virtual total supremacy. The direct election of Senators in the 17th Amendment of 1912 further expanded populist democracy.

    Marx promised democracy and universal suffrage. Trotsky promised a peoples democracy, as did Mao. The current progressive platform on voting rights; opposing voter registration, supporting immigration of dependents with voting rights rather than working rights, eliminating the Electoral College, reducing the voting age to 16 years old, registering prisoners, and drive-by voter registration would complete the transition from a representative republic to a peoples democracy.

    Kevin Villani

    —-

    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Leftism, Political Philosophy, Politics | 8 Comments »

    A New Insult-Meme!

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

    In a discussion of ‘alternative energy’ at a social media site, someone raised the practical issue of the difficulties involved in high-volume energy storage.  Someone else came back at him with a comment to the effect that “climate-solution deniers are as bad a climate change deniers.”

    This is probably just the leading edge of a new insult-meme:  I expect to see a lot more of the climate-solution-denier accusations being made.  We are getting uncomfortably close to a pervasive climate of Lysenkoism.

    In Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, set in the Soviet Union, his character Rubashov (an old Bolshevik who is now on trial for his life) muses:

    “A short time ago, our leading agriculturist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a NATIONALLY CENTRALIZED AGRICULTURE, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. I was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong …”

    and

    “We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error had its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death. We were held for madmen because we followed every thought down to its final consequence and acted accordingly. We were compared to the inquisition because, like them, we constantly felt in ourselves the whole weight of responsibility for the super-individual life to come. We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in men’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull. We lived under the compulsion of working things out to their final conclusions. Our minds were so tensely charged that the slightest collision caused a mortal short-circuit. Thus we were fated to mutual destruction.” (emphasis added)

    The assertions now being made that anyone who challenges catastrophic CO2-caused climate change is complicit in the deaths of thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions parallel the above rather closesly.

    Koestler’s Rubashov also observed that it had become “necessity to drill every sentence into the masses by vulgarization and endless repetition; what was presented as right must shine like gold, what was presented as wrong must be as black as pitch; political statements had to be coloured like ginger-bread figures at a fair.”  

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    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Energy & Power Generation, Leftism, Russia | 27 Comments »

    Book Review: Gossip from the Forest

    Posted by David Foster on 24th June 2019 (All posts by )

    Gossip from the Forest, by Thomas Keneally

    You are a politician and a government official, but without much in the way of real power.  You are not a member of the country’s elite class, and out of sympathy with many of the government’s policies.

    For the last four years, your country has been involved in a major war–a war that you initially supported.  But at least a year ago, you came to the conclusion that the war cannot be won, and that a peace treaty must be negotiated.  You have had no success, however, in convincing the parliament and the government of this view.

    Now, however, the leading generals have become convinced that a total and disastrous defeat is impending, and peace must be made immediately. Your country’s negotiating position at this point is not strong, to put it mildly.  And one of the small group selected to conduct the negotiations with the enemy is you.

    It gets worse.

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    Posted in Book Notes, France, Germany, History, Miscellaneous, War and Peace | 1 Comment »

    Mice in a Maze

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 18th June 2019 (All posts by )

    Arnade, Chris. Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.

    Chris Arnade certainly seems to have been called, and may well have been chosen, to help mitigate one of the great divisions of our time. Dignity complements, among others, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart with interviews and photos from what Murray would call “Fishtown,” or rather its extreme margin, whose inhabitants are simultaneously transient and rooted, strategizing to survive in ways often incomprehensible to the more cognitively gifted and emotionally stable. Learning to extend compassion and respect rather than mere pity (in its more negative variant), glib political “solutions,” and outright contempt is a challenge far too few Americans are willing to undertake. Matthew 22:14 seems unnervingly relevant in this context, and while the church as it is depicted among the people Dignity portrays is an overwhelmingly positive influence, more “front row” believers might take a moment to consider just how much better than the vast majority of us Arnade, a secular liberal, has done at reaching out to desperate communities. My advice to them is to buy and read this book, pray over it, maybe lend it out to others for discussion, and—without reinventing the wheel—do the Tocquevillian thing and organize/volunteer, with an eye to Luke 15. Because if the parables in that chapter aren’t about “back row” people, they don’t mean a damned thing.

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    Posted in Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, Christianity, Civil Society, Current Events, Education, Human Behavior, Libertarianism, Personal Narrative, Political Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Society, Trump, USA | 31 Comments »

    Adventures in the Indy Author Trade

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th June 2019 (All posts by )

    The Daughter Unit and I spent most of Saturday morning in the lovely little town of Wimberley, Texas. Wimberley is situated on a particularly scenic stretch of the Blanco River, in the hills to the west of San Marcos. It’s closer to Austin than to San Antonio and seems to have become even more of a weekend tourist draw, since we first visited it in the late 1990ies. Then there were just a handful of little shops catering to tourists, and one restaurant with had memorable hamburgers and an outside deck which overlooked the riverbank, all grown with cypress trees, great and green. There were a fair number of hippie artisan types; potters, glass-blowers, metal-fabricators and the like, plus the usual number of antique shops, which tended more towards the ‘quaint old country junk’ side of the scale. On the first Saturday of the month, Wimberley stages a mammoth open-air market – something we’ve been to a number of times. It’s supposed to be the oldest and biggest one in Texas.
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    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, Miscellaneous, Texas | 4 Comments »

    Book Review: The Caine Mutiny

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

    The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

    —-

    (reposted in honor of Herman Wouk, who died yesterday at the age of 103)

    Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg.  The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film.  And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continues to follow the USS Caine and  key characters for the duration of the war.  In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A 2005 article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)

    Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the  “hoodlum navy.”  This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure.  Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions.  Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.

    The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic.  As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate,  that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”

    The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.

    In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey:  Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral.  But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble.  Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.

    But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.

    An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”

    “Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”

    The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side.  Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows.  The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass.  “Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel.  The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears.  He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.

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    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, History, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Reruns, Transportation | 9 Comments »

    America, the Land of the Free Lunch and the Home of the Brave Easily Traumatized

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 3rd May 2019 (All posts by )

    As a Boston area baby boomer, I belted out the National Anthem in my youth with conviction at sporting events. Massachusetts educators emphasized its role as the birthplace of the American Revolution from distant unaccountable politicians (leaving out the crucial role of fake news written and published by the infamous brewer’s son Sam Adams) and the motivating principles, summed up by Virginian Patrick Henry’s immortal phrase: “give me liberty or give me death.”

    In the 1970s Boston’s U.S. Congressman Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill quipped “all politics is local.” Now the progressive daily prayer on Twitter begins “Our father, who art in Washington D.C. give us money – a guaranteed minimum income, reparations, welfare, entitlements, etc. and other free stuff – food, housing, medical care, a college education.”

    Bostonian President Kennedy’s appeal to voters’ patriotism in the 1960’s to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” is reversed today. Patriotism is as out of favor with many millenials (who proudly display their participatory soccer trophies) as are the Boston (now New England) Patriots for hogging the Super Bowl Trophy this century, stigmatizing other teams as “losers.”

    Competing Foreign Ideologies

    Traumatized by competing ideas, many millenials would trade U.S. competitive capitalism and individual freedom for a free lunch. “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes” according to Mark Twain. The core contemporary national political issue is whether America’s popular progressive ”social democracy” ideology rhymes with its founding principles and historical values or foreign ideologies that threaten the body politic?

    The Communism Threat

    The Bolshevik Revolution ended an anachronistic Imperial dynasty in a country with no prior democratic traditions. Communist intellectual Leon Trotsky promised a utopian Marxist socialism, international brotherhood and the end of nation-state competition for resources as the state would wither away. Communist atrocities under Stalin, murders and deaths measured in the tens and hundreds of millions, predated the WW II Western Alliance in a desperate attempt to industrialize a backward agrarian society.

    Stalin promoted opaque Russian Imperialism under the banner of brotherhood. Soviet skullduggery in post War elections in Europe and around the globe – and CIA involvement to counter it (or visa-versa) – was widespread. The post WW I & II “Red Scare” of communist infiltration of state institutions in the U.S. was somewhat over-blown, but the belief that communists could be elected in a democracy based on false promises then turn dictatorial and refuse to relinquish power as has occurred most recently in Venezuela, was well founded. Fearing such a cancer on the body politic, the Communist Control Act of 1954 outlawing the Communist Party in the United States suppressing free speech passed with the full support of progressive Democrats who wanted to distance themselves from ”Uncle Joe” Stalin (and later, many others, including Mao).

    Fascism, Communism’s Cousin and Bitter Political Rival

    Hitler came to power in democratic Germany promising economic prosperity, understandably as wartime consumer deprivation far exceeded that of France and Britain (where communist sympathies were widespread), and post war reparations inhibited a consumer recovery. Although Mussolini, the founder of European fascism, once headed the Communist Party in Italy, and Hitler founded the National Socialist Party, neither implemented socialism domestically. By national, they meant a return to Germany’s pre-War greatness: consumers initially benefitted from a massive boom in defense spending before once again suffering wartime deprivations.

    The nationalist agenda was less imperial than traditional. European history since 1453 is largely related to border wars as Germany is caught in the middle between the British and French empires to the west and Russian empire to the east: only the scale of Nazi eastward border expansion represented a radical departure. In Hitler’s view this rhymed with American westward expansion and genocide of the indigenous populations. He persecuted the Jews, even ethnic Germans, based on Nazi perception of Jewish financing of German enemies on the WW I battlefield and in the labor movement fomenting unrest on the home front and their perceived outsized influence in the Bolshevik communist movement (Trotsky was Jewish).

    Hitler inherited a failing German economy. He was aware that the economic potential of the western capitalist powers were orders of magnitude greater and growing faster, causing him to knowingly take enormous risks to address what he believed was an existential threat. Even as he acquired new territories he was playing catch up. Unlike Stalin, he was not driven by an anti-capitalist economic ideology, but intervention in the German economy increased as the Wehrmacht consumed an ever increasing share of GDP – over half at the peak – relying on private enterprise and the profit and price mechanism to the extent feasible (and arguably more than FDR) relative to the size of the war effort. Dictatorial power and crony capitalist corruption – favoritism of the political elite – was an inevitable result of a rising government share of the economy.

    Racist ideology contributed to his miscalculation of the military industrial ability of the Soviet Union, where his early luck inevitably ran out, after which a war of attrition would exploit Germany’s relative economic weakness. Economic desperation determined the magnitude of Nazi atrocities, less in scope and subsequent to those of the communists in the Soviet Union, but driven by racism.

    In 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court extended freedom of speech protection to the National Socialist Party of America, a racist fringe rather than socialist party.

    European Social Democracy

    In the wake of WW II deprivation and devastation in Europe, “social democracy” – a greater role of the state in providing household necessities – was viewed as a more benign alternative to communism. Britain, particularly Scotland, experimented primarily with socialized housing and medical care until the late 1970s when, as British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher put it, they were running out of “other peoples’ money.”It was also tried in the small relatively homogeneous Nordic countries, running out of money in Sweden in the 1990s and Finland more recently. These experiments were not democratic socialism or the fascist prone democratic capitalism, as all were financed by taxing capitalist-created income and resulted in retrenchment rather than socio-political collapse when they went to far.

    American Progressivism Rhymes with Fascism and Communism, not European Social Democracy

    But for democrat skullduggery, Socialist Bernie Sanders might well have been the 2016 Democratic candidate and also won the election. Most of his younger Democrat competitors for 2020 support the Green New Deal, the latest utopian vision. Their success hinges on rhyming this vision with small-state European social democracy, but the American progressive movement has always focused on the entire nation. When a failed ideology is adopted by a large too-big-to-fail nation-state like Germany or the Soviet Union in the past or the U.S. at present, unaccountable politicians cover-up and double down on failure until it is systemic and seismic like the 2008 financial crisis.

    Progressivism’s historical nationalism and racism and current methods of intervention in a capitalist market economy rhyme with fascism: its premise that economic progress is attributable to politics and its utopian goal of social justice without regard to national borders both rhyme with communism: the inherent dictatorial lack of political or fiscal accountability rhymes with both.

    American Nationalism

    Federal power ballooned during the wars of progressive presidents TR, Wilson, FDR and LBJ. That American patriotism is excessively nationalistic has been an issue since the Monroe Doctrine and subsequent Manifest Destiny. America’s support of free trade post WW II supported by American hegemony over trade routes worked well, as it did under British hegemony leading up to WW I. But the post WW II order is once again breaking down as a consequence of increasing nation-state rivalry over resources and trade routes. President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is daily attacked not as patriotism but Nazi racist nationalism. The future of American Hegemony should be the central issue in the next presidential election.

    Racism and Sexism

    In a competitive free market economy those who would inappropriately discriminate by race or sex always lose out, always: racism requires political protection from competition. Socialism is inherently discriminatory; the state determines who gets what and who pays. The Democratic Party was the party of slavery, Jim Crow and voter discrimination; it remains the party of restrictive working laws and regulations (with a “disparate impact” on black youth employment) e.g., with well above market “living” minimum wages, credentialing and anti-immigrant worker prohibitions, and admission quotas. Winners beget losers: progressives once again discriminate against Asians.

    The progressive party founded the eugenics movement targeted to limit the black population from which Hitler borrowed ideology. Roe versus Wade represents a eugenic success story, as abortion for the white population at the time required no more than a bus ticket to the next state. Now about half of black pregnancies are terminated.

    The Road to Serfdom

    The promise of “free stuff” to those mostly not yet paying taxes and of cancelling their debt likely explains college students’ preference for socialism over capitalism, and the myth of socialist environmentalism the Green New Deal environmental goals.

    Income inequality and Social Justice in a Democracy

    America’s social welfare system while not as generous as the Nordic countries generally provides a standard of living sufficient by international comparison and luxurious compared to the deprivations suffered when fascism and communism incubated. Competitive market capitalism produces unequal incomes, the source of its ability to raise the living standards of all through increased productivity. Progressive policies that cross the constitutional threshold of equality of opportunity to demand equality of economic outcomes by broadening the base of the politically favored are a subset of crony capitalism that favors the political elite at the expense of society generally, a failed ideology. Socialism fails every time because incentives matter.

    The Green New Deal: a Fentanyl induced Utopian High

    Concern for the environment and the human impact on it is warranted, but what to do about it is a difficult question primarily for foreign diplomats. The Green New Deal adopted by only the U.S. would provide negligible environmental benefit. But as virtually all past environmental initiatives, it would be a bonanza for the crony capitalists and their political patrons. Whether or not the Green New Deal cost $100 trillion or only $10 trillion, it is a road to serfdom for millenials, with no exit provided by the archaic modern monetary theory.

    Democrats Cross the Rubicon

    “The founders of the Roman Republic, like the American founding fathers, placed checks and balances on the power of their leaders. The Romans, however, came up with a way to sidestep these checks and balances when strong leadership was needed, such as a time of crisis.” 

    Communism, fascism, the New Deal and social democracy were all implemented in response to an existential crisis. It is no accident that progressives exploited the “environmental crisis” to push their social justice agenda: these faux crises don’t justify national socialism, an existential threat to the body politic.

    The majority of American voters – positively correlated to age – still properly associate socialism with the totalitarian communist and Nazi regimes rather than European democratic socialism as socialist Sanders’ argues, undercut by his Moscow honeymoon. The two big progressive myths are that European social democracies never run out of money and that “other peoples’ money” i.e., the other party’s voters, will somehow finance the socialist agenda. Green New Deal proponents refused to vote for it to avoid voter accountability for the costs. National socialism and the virtual one party rule necessary to achieve it provides the best explanation for the rest of the 2020 “democratic” agenda.

    Progressive Social Democracy isn’t Nordic

    The population of California is four times that of the largest Nordic country Sweden. It, like all the progressive states is over taxed and over indebted. Obamacare impregnated promiscuous states with these twin fiscal burdens with a whispered promise of a subsequent opaque federal bailout when they matured, making states subservient to D.C. like Soviet Oblasts to Moscow.

    Suppression of Free Speech

    The free speech amendment is listed first as the foremost safeguard against infringement of individual freedom and equality under the law. The Communist Party remains illegal in U.S. due to its meretricious promises, now virtually indistinguishable from those of progressives. Conservative speech to expose the fallacies of progressive ideology and the threat to the Republic is suppressed by the democratic state apparatus. Free speech invites propaganda, including Russian translations, think tank and academic “research” but should be protected, even for communists and neo-Nazis.

    From Republicanism to Democratic Totalitarianism and One Party Rule

    The American experiment with a limited government republic has been undergoing constant change since the “peoples” candidate Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party and seventh President, while winning the popular vote in the post-universal male suffrage election of 1824 lost in the Electoral College, which he then proposed to abolish. Subsequent progressive constitutional amendments extended voting rights to former slaves and their decedents (15th), women (19th) and the direct election of Senators (17th).

    Even with control of the House, Senate and Presidency, this wasn’t enough to pass Obamacare, arguably the stealth stepping stone to single payer Medicare for all. Unprecedented political maneuvering and prosecutorial and administrative abuse by then FBI Director Robert Mueller was employed. Then a lone opinion of Chief Justice Roberts relied on another progressive amendment, the 16th enabling unlimited power to tax, to save it.

    Socialism in a large diverse nation like the U.S. requires permanent dictatorial powers of enforcement, as highlighted by the requirements of Obamacare and the controversy over the individual mandate. This explains the progressive platform on: voting rights; opposing voter registration, supporting immigration of dependents with voting rights rather than working rights, eliminating the Electoral College, reducing the voting age to 16 years old, registering prisoners, and drive-by voter registration: the Supreme Court; nominating liberal (i.e., anti-Constitutional) Supreme Court Justices, packing the Supreme Court (again), and: the apparent attempt by the Obama Administration to implement PRI style hereditary presidential selection. This rhymes with Mao’s “people’s democratic dictatorship” not the individual liberty of the American Lion.

    To quote America’s greatest economist Milton Friedman:  “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

    Kevin Villani

     
     
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    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Conservatism, Crony Capitalism, Culture, Economics & Finance, Elections, History, Leftism, Libertarianism, Obama, Political Philosophy, Politics, Public Finance, Taxes, Tea Party, Tradeoffs, Trump, USA | 6 Comments »

    Archive Post: Evelyn Waugh And the Sword of Honor

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 18th April 2019 (All posts by )

    (An archive post from 2015 … working on a new post, but I thought that this was one of my more thoughtful ones…)

    So, leafing – metaphorically speaking – through the video delights on offer through the Acorn video catalogue in search of something amusing to while away the evening after a day’s labor on various book projects, the most pressing of which is not my own, but a paid client – we came upon a two-part version from about ten years ago of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy. I suggested that we watch it, since I had a bout of Waugh fever about the time that I was in college upper division, in hot pursuit of that relatively useless degree in English. (But I enjoyed the pursuit very much on its own merits, not being one of those one-percenters with delusions of the diploma leading me author-matically into an lavishly paid gig anywhere in the academic or in the publishing establishment.)

    Anyway, I had read a good few of Waugh’s books early on; liked Scoop – as vicious an evisceration of Big Media as it was in the 1930s as was ever set to page – and the first book of the Sword of Honor Trilogy, as a similarly bitterly cynical romp through the first years of WWII. The training year, the ‘Phony War’ year … when nothing much (aside from Nazi Germany overrunning Poland, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark, and France) was happening. And then it all turned deadly serious, with which Waugh just didn’t seem able to cope. The seriousness of it all, I mean. Literary and serious observers, looking through their lorgnettes at current events sometimes have this difficulty, I know. Poor P. G. Woodhouse also had the same trouble, regarding WWII, even as it caught him up in its ghastly coils. I surmise that dear old P. G. dealt with it by moving to America and never dealing with it at all, within the frame of his books; probably a wise literary decision, since he had the formula down pat, so to speak.

    We watched the whole two-part distillation of the Trilogy – enjoying the scenic views of Daniel Craig no end – but the miniseries kind of left us cold. I suspect that re-reading the Trilogy entire would also leave us rather cold. Apparently in the purview of the Great and Good English Literature Establishment, The Trilogy is held to be one of the Majorly Significant Novels dealing with WWII … to which I blow a large raspberry. (That all you got, English Literary Establishment? Really…) Yes, Evelyn Waugh was a magnificent prose stylist, and his satiric novels in the 1930s are bitchy and hilarious, Return to Brideshead is elegiac and heartbreaking … but the Sword of Honor Trilogy is a very odd fish. The first volume was true to the bitchy and satiric form; frankly, I found it very funny because … well, it was to do with the weirdness of the military. Of any age and country, really; a sort of inside black humor, best appreciated by those who have lived through and endured. (G. M. Fraser’s McAuslan cycle is a wonderful example of this, only not burdened by the weight of being A Majorly Significant Novel, so it can be appreciated for its own merits. What a lovely miniseries the McAuslan cycle would make – I can’t imagine why it has been overlooked in this respect… anyway, back to the subject…)

    The rest of the TV version – and take into consideration the fact that I am trying to recall the source novels that I read a lifetime ago – rather fell flat for both of us. We agreed that Waugh couldn’t really write women – although he did have the manipulative bitch subset of the species down cold. It was just rather depressing that just about all the various characters which the hero character tried to help in some way came to rather awful ends. Perhaps that was the inclination of the screenwriters; but really – the message is that it’s useless and futile to be a decent person and do the right thing? How nihilistic is that?

    I wonder also if trying to write a novel about current events isn’t rather a trap for the writer; in retrospect it certainly seemed so for Waugh; the Holocaust together with the Communist aggression in Eastern Europe were just too horrific for a satirist to manage within the scope of a serio-comic novel.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Book Notes, Britain, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Leftism | Comments Off on Archive Post: Evelyn Waugh And the Sword of Honor

    Movie Considerations & The Highwaymen

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th April 2019 (All posts by )

    After reading a couple of favorable reviews of The Highwaymen at blogs that I am usually given to trust, I took a flyer on watching the movie – streaming video, of course, on my home computer. I can count the number of movies that I have made a deliberate effort to see in a theater over the last couple of years on the fingers of one hand and … well, wow. Just wow. Kevin Costner isn’t any Kenneth Branagh, or even a John Wayne – but he can act, especially given an intelligent and nuanced script, spare and understated direction, and production values not dependent on flashy special effects. Woody Harrelson may personally be nuttier than squirrel poop – but he also can act. Like Jimmy Stewart did before them – they are better and more interesting playing older, more grizzled characters then they were as smooth-faced young studs. So – The Highwaymen is a retelling of the hunt for and final ambush of gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, glamorized beyond practically all recognition in the 1968 movie. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Crime and Punishment, Diversions, Film, Texas | 40 Comments »

    A Truly Courageous Business Decision

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

    Today marks the 55th anniversary of IBM’s announcement of the System/360 line…which made obsolete virtually all of its then-existing products.  The 360 line established a common architecture for machines of widely-differing price and performance characteristics, with the individual product implementations of this architecture differing considerably.  The goal was compatibility, so that customers could upgrade without extensive rewriting of programs.  Consolidating IBM’s diverse computer systems into this single system architecture was a bold decision; truly, a bet-the-company decision: in the end, it paid off, with devastating consequences for the ‘Seven Dwarfs’ who were IBM’s competitors at the time…but the implementation was frighteningly stressful.  A good article on the project recently appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

    Tom Watson Jr, who ran IBM during this time period, discusses the 360 project extensively in his superb memoir, Father, Son, and Co.  I reviewed it here–highly recommended.

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Management, Tech | 21 Comments »

    California agonistes.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 19th March 2019 (All posts by )

    I moved to California in 1956 to attend college. Los Angeles was a paradise. The weather was great. The traffic was no problem. I learned that the LAPD did not take bribes and was not amused at attempts to offer them. After growing up in Chicago, I had learned to put a ten dollar bill behind my driver’s license in case I was stopped. In Los Angeles, I did so and was lectured about the consequences of offering a bribe by a stern LAPD officer.

    I lived in the fraternity house and one year slept on an outside second floor porch. I had four blankets on my bed but no problem, with flies or mosquitoes. I remember flying back to Los Angeles one New Year’s Eve from Christmas vacation in Chicago. The palm trees told me I was home. There was a brush fire in the hills but it was nice to be back. I would sometimes drive up to Sunset Boulevard just to see the city at night. The TV show, “77 Sunset Strip” showed just what it looked like. We would drive into Hollywood and sometimes eat at Villa Frescati. We had a lot of fun. Too much fun as I lost my scholarship.

    The first sign of trouble was described in Victor Davis Hanson’s book, “Mexifornia.” There was trouble before that as the Watts Riot in 1965 began the endless pandering to the angry mobs.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Society, Politics | 12 Comments »