The Razors

Inspired, I’m sure, by Occam’s Razor, George Mack (at X) suggests a set of rules of thumb, which he collectively calls Razors.  A sampling:

Bragging Razor – If someone brags about their success or happiness, assume it’s half what they claim. If someone downplays their success or happiness, assume it’s double what they claim.

High Agency Razor – If unsure who to work with, pick the person that has the best chances of breaking you out of a 3rd world prison.

Luck Razor – If stuck with 2 equal options, pick the one that feels like it will produce the most luck later down the line. I used this razor to go for drinks with a stranger rather than watch Netflix. In hindsight, it was the highest ROI decision I’ve ever made.

Gell-Mann Razor – Assume every media article contains a % of false information. Sandbox the article from your worldview until you’ve: • Seen primary sources • Spoken to 3 domain experts.

Taleb’s Surgeon – If presented with two equal candidates for a role, pick the one with the least amount of charisma. The uncharismatic one has got there despite their lack of charisma. The charismatic one has got there with the aid of their charisma.

RTWT.  Re the High Agency Razor, I remember that Jeff Bezos said that one of his wife-selection criteria (the first time around) was her likely ability to get him out of a third-world prison.  (“a visualization for resourcefulness,” he explained).  Compare with the decision rule that Erich Maria Remarque said (I hope jokingly) that he applied in choosing between Paulette Goddard and Marlene Dietrich.

Re Taleb’s Surgeon, I think it’s a good general criterion, but its applicability really does depend on the specific job you’re hiring for.

Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

How to spot high-agency people.  Interesting list.

The genealogy of nuclear fear. (Nuclear here referring to nuclear power, not nuclear war.)

A survey cited at LinkedIn:  Gen Z (aged 16-25) wants to work in media and entertainment when they grow up.  “This generation values things like work-life balance, flexibility and creativity over more traditional values like job security” also, half of this demographic is interested in pursuing entrepreneurship in some way.  Here’s a link to the actual survey.

How much ‘work-life balance’ does a successful actor or director really have, though?  And entrepreneurship, other than the most casual, tends to be quite intense in its time demands.

CBS News reports that roughly one in three young shoppers in the U.S. has admitted to giving themselves five-finger discounts at self-checkout counters, according to a recent survey.  A response at X:

America does not have the moral cultural norms for there not to be a massive amount of theft. We’re too self-centered, individualistic, and we celebrate envy as a desert claim in the name of “equity.”

There is certainly a big cultural problem here, but I question the idea that Individualism and Community are opposites…traditionally, there has been quite a lot of both in America, as I believe Tocqueville observed.  My thought is that both individualism and community are in danger of being replaced, and in many case have been replaced, by anomie.

Claire Lehmann suggests some books for helping children learn about history and philosophy.  Other suggestions in the replies.

NYT finally reports what many others have been writing and speaking about for some time:  the school closures for Covid are correlated with a sharp decrease in student learning.  How do we square this data, though, with what we know about the preexisting generally poor low and declining quality of US public education?

The AI world is all astir with the news that San Altman has been removed as CEO of OpenAI…and now, the board is negotiating with him for his possible return! There are many explanations floating around as to what is really going on. The organization/governance chart for this enterprise, which someone posted at X, is rather…unique.


Speaking of AI, somebody at X thought that Biden should have issued an executive order to require the rehiring of Sam Altman and his associate who also left. (Tweet  now deleted.)  There was no mention of what possible legal authority Biden might have for issuing such an order, but increasingly people seem not to worry much about such things. The other thing that struck me was that such an order would be analogous to an order by President Eisenhower to require the Traitorous Eight to return to Shockley Semiconductor in 1957.  Or, even earlier, to require Bardeen and Brattain to remain at Bell Labs and keep working with Shockley on grounds that the transistor was such a critically important technology for national security and economic well-being.

A lot of people have trouble grasping the idea that if something important is being done by a particular institution, that doesn’t mean it could not be done equally well…or much better…by other institutions, including ones that may not yet exist. We see this phenomenon, for instance, in discussions of education and the future of the Social Security system.

The Hollow Men

…and hollow women, too.

I’ve been writing for years about the rise of toxic ideologies on America’s college campuses–totalitarian, anti-Israel, outright anti-Semitic–but still have been surprised by what has happened in these places since October 7.  We need to discuss the reasons why it’s gotten so bad.

A few days ago, someone republished an essay, written in 2016, by a professor who has taught at several ‘elite’ colleges.  Excerpt:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture. It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

And when someone has devoted the first 18 years of their lives in large part to jumping through hoops in hopes of making a good impression on some future college admissions officers…and then, in many cases, having to get good ratings from professors whose criteria are largely subjective…that someone is unlikely to develop into a person with a strong internal gyroscope. Quite likely, they are likely to be subject to social pressures and mass movements.

Someone at X said that the Cornell student arrested for making threats against Jewish students was probably just trying too hard to fit in and win approval of his peers and took it a step too far.  My view is that there’s no just about it…the desire to fit in and win approval is very often the reason why people commit evil acts.  I’m reminded of something CS Lewis:  Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

The above sentence is from a talk that Lewis gave at King’s College in 1944.  Also from that address:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

So yes, the passion for approval has always existed. But I feel sure it is much stronger, or at least has fewer countervailing forces, among people who experience today’s college admissions race and its eventual fulfillment.

The students about whom the professor wrote in the essay linked above have not only been encouraged to devote their time to hoop-jumping, they have also been told again and again that their country and their society are evil–that their ancestors were evil, and their parents are probably evil as well.  And that practically all aspects of culture more than 5 years old, whether traditional songs and folktales or classic movies, are harmful and certainly unworthy of study except for purposes of deconstructing their bad examples.  And, of course, relatively few of these students are influenced by or have seriously studied any traditional religion.

So they will likely be attracted to ideologies that promise to give a sense of meaning and coherence to their lives.  I’m once again reminded of something in the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, who came of age in Germany between the wars.  He says that when the economy and society began to significantly stabilize–which he credits to Gustav Stresemann’s chancellorship and the introduction of the Rentenmark into the monetary system–most people were happy:

The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

But not everyone was happy.  A return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.


To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I think that in America today, we have a considerable number of people who get, maybe not all of the entire content of their lives, but much of the content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.  And I suspect that this phenomenon is stronger among the students described by the professor in his essay than in the American population at large.

Someone at X remarked that “Social justice progressivism (SJP) is the first time most people—including most Christians—have encountered a truly vital religion. Rarely since the peace of Westphalia and the scientific revolution have we seen its like.”  (SJP is, of course, basically what we call Wokeism, as it has been called by some of its proponents.)  He continues:

I use “religion” here descriptively, not derogatorily. I never liked the New Atheists and their dismissal of religion. Religion, broadly defined, is the unified source of a person’s moral and epistemic beliefs, put into practice. People in my circles panic, at times, over the apparent progressive takeover of institutions: universities, the government, the media. They appeal to goals of institutional neutrality, to a sacred role of science as being above petty political concerns, to political traditions—and people are startled and upset, time and again, as they feel SJP tramples those traditions. But that is precisely what we should expect from a vital religion. As Helen Lewis memorably points out, many young progressives would never think to judge someone for marrying across religious lines, but to marry across political ones is unthinkable. Religion is just a belief, after all, and you can’t judge someone based off of that. But politics? Well, some things are sacred.

What are your own thoughts on the outbreak of support for Hamas atrocities among college students and academics?  Were you surprised?  What factors do you think drove it, and how, if at all, can it be reversed?


Book Review: Year of Consent–Rerun with Additional Commentary

I reviewed this book in 2021.  Published in 1954, it is set in the then-future year of 1990–a time when though the United States is still nominally a democracy, the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  Events in the two years since I posted that review have even more strongly demonstrated the almost overwhelming political power that is exercised by the communications industry–traditional media, social media, also academia–and I think the review is about due for a rerun.  I’ll add some additional thoughts at the end.

The social engineers who are the true masters of the country are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is conducting influence operations.

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

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

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

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