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  • Archive for the 'Book Notes' Category

    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 »

    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 »

    Occupation – A French Village

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 12th October 2019 (All posts by )

    On the strong recommendation of David Foster, the Daughter-Unit and I began to watch: A French Village, that seven-season long miniseries which follows five years of German occupation and a bit of the aftermath as it affects the lives of a handful of characters in a small town in eastern France close to the Swiss border – from the day that the German invaders arrive, to the aftermath of the occupation, in a fractured peace, when all was said and done. (It’s available through Amazon Prime.) A good few of the occupants of that village did not really welcome liberation and had damn good reasons – guilty consciences, mostly, for having collaborated with the Germans with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (A benefit is that this series stars actors of whom we have never heard, in French with English subtitles. Given how the establishment American entertainment media has gone all noisily woke, anti-Trump and abusive towards us conservative residents of Flyoverlandia, this is a darned good thing. Seriously, for years and years I used to only personally boycott Jane Fonda and Cat Stevens, now my list of ‘oh, hell NEVER! actors and personalities is well into the scores.)
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Diversions, Europe, France, Germany, History, Media | 28 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 »

    Training Wheels

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

    This last weekend was the start of the fall book market season; I spent three days in Giddings, Texas, as one of the local authors invited to participate in the yearly Word Wrangler Book Festival – which is sponsored by the local library, and supported by practically every civic institution in Giddings, including the local elementary and high schools. Last Thursday, the first day of Word Wrangler, certain of us authors volunteered to go and visit schools for readings, or to just talk about writing. This year, I visited three middle-school classes, to talk to sixth graders about writing, the stories that they liked, and what they could write about. I like doing this with fifth and sixth grade students, by the way – they are old enough to read pretty well, but not so old as to be jaded by the whole ‘visiting writer/storyteller’ thing. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging, Book Notes, Diversions, Education, Media | 9 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 »

    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 | Comments Off on Summer Rerun: Jeff Sypeck’s Gargoyle Poems

    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.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    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 »