Update: Reading, Emotions, Life

So, a few weeks back I was reading Michael Flynn’s excellent Firestar, well past the midway point, and I had to stop for reasons that are not clear even to me. Maybe it’s the deep suspicion, based on Flynn’s previous books and a few broad hints in the text, that one or more beloved characters are going to get killed off. Sure, the central characters have to survive, at least some of them, because this is a series. Maybe nobody dies, dunno. Maybe this isn’t even the reason I stopped. But for whatever reason, I’ll have to finish it up in a bit, when things calm down.

Meanwhile, did read – for the first time, I’ll sheepishly admit – War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. They also were emotionally tough, although it is Wells’ grim view of humanity that makes them so. Even then, he understands his readers enough not to end the stories on utter downbeats. WotW is positively cheery, by the end.  They are also very short by modern novel standards.

Don’t know how I managed not to have read them in the past – I think we have more than one copy of them. But I’d rather think I skipped them than to think I’d read such memorable books and yet failed to remember them.

Also reading the Ballad of the White Horse, another work I’ve inexplicably failed to read by now. I’m thinking it should be the official epic poem of the Sad Puppies. I’m carefully searching for any references to cheese – nothing so for.

On the ‘Life’ side of the equation, if you are the praying type, please pray for my eldest sister, Annette, who is in the hospital after a series of strokes.

Plan to return to reporting on education history, skewering Science! ™, and reviewing books shortly.

In the News: GE, etc.

A while back, I wrote about one unintended consequence that causes a peculiar market distortion. In the news this week, we have another prime example, one that few people outside the industry will understand. Here’s the crux of the gist: GE to sell bulk of finance unit, return up to $90 billion to investors

(Reuters) – General Electric Co will shed most of its finance unit and return as much as $90 billion to shareholders as it becomes a “simpler” industrial business instead of an unwieldy hybrid of banking and manufacturing.

The company on Friday outlined a restructuring plan that includes buying back up to $50 billion of its shares, selling about $30 billion in real estate assets over the next two years and divesting more GE Capital operations. GE stock jumped 8.5 percent.

Now, for an inside baseball moment: What’s really going on here is that GE, over the decades, built up a large and highly profitable set of finance businesses. Many of them, probably a majority, were developed to help sell GE manufactured products, everything from locomotives and jet engines to MRIs. It’s just like when you go buy a car – the dealer doesn’t want to send you off to find financing, he wants to make sure you can get it right there before you change your mind. So, the car manufacturers provide financing in order to help the dealer move product.

So far, so good, and not very different than what lots of other manufacturing companies do. GE Finance has succeeded very well – too well, in fact. A couple decades ago, the success of the equipment leasing operations in structuring deals so that they were able to offset taxable income with depreciation allowances resulted in GE paying little if any taxes, which, while perfectly legal (and, frankly, good for the economy, as each of those leases represents equipment deployed someplace trying to make money), nonetheless offended the tender sensibilities of the mathematically soft-headed. So we got AMT – Alternative Minimum Tax – a patch sewn onto a kludge of a Rube Goldberg machine: the tax depreciation regulations. See the essay linked above for details, if you’ve got the stomach for them.

GE’s business model is quite hands-off for a conglomerate. The mother ship sets return goals, such as a 2% return on assets or such, and then lets the subsidiaries figure out how to do it. Fail, and they very unsentimentally cut the subsidiary loose by selling it to somebody else. Succeed, and management gets bonuses. This is a process they have perfected over decades, with the result that GE is consistently one of the most profitable companies in the world.

One oddity: they don’t limit what their subsidiaries do in order to make the required returns. Generally, conglomerates don’t really want their units competing against each other head on – seems inefficient, on the surface, at least. GE, on the other hand, says ‘have at ’em’. So a GE subsidiary can conceivably put another GE subsidiary out of business. Life is tough. Further, if a subsidiary sees a chance to expand outside its core business, they have the green light – just so long as they meet the return target.

Thus we arrive at the state we are today: GE’s financial arm had become the largest source of income for GE, but had also started to cause headaches for the mother ship. It had originally fallen under greater political scrutiny because of the ‘tax dodge’ of depreciation. Then, after the late economic unpleasantness, GE Finance got classified as a ‘too big to fail’ bank. Never mind that it had played a relatively minor role in the whole mortgage debacle, and has always been managed conservatively – because the subsidiaries had long expanded into financial realms other than just equipment finance, the unassailable logic of Barney Frank (he’s dead, no use assailing now. Oops – a reader corrects me – Mr. Frank is not dead. Somehow, I thought he was. My apologies, on the vanishingly slight chance he reads this.) as codified in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 said that *consumers* needed to be protected from Wall Street – and that, because GE has a toe-hold in consumer finance and knows people on Wall Street, consumers need to be protected from GE as well.

Now, I have little sympathy for GE – they are ruthless company that lays people off at the drop of a hat. They play political hardball, they know the game. But they are not by any stretch a consumer bank. The vast bulk of their business is business to business – they finance equipment for other companies. But Dodd-Frank is requiring them to behave – and keep records, issue reports, file filings and follow processes – designed to protect *consumers* from shady dealings. It’s made life hard, expensive and less profitable for GE Finance – and the GE Mother Ship as well.

Thus, after assessing the fall out for a couple years, GE, in its typical ruthless manner, has decided to rid itself of these troublesome finance companies. Thousands of people will be fired. And – disclosure – many of these folks are among my very best customers.

Most of these people are highly trained finance professionals, so they will probably be all right eventually. What bugs me is the pointlessness of it all: no consumers are going to be ‘protected’ by this move, tens and maybe hundreds of millions will change hands just processing all these sales, and families and communities will be disrupted. But to oppose Dodd-Frank means you’re a meanie who wants big businesses to fleece consumers with impunity, right? Sheesh.

As to the stock price going up: duh. There’s going to be a massive influx of cash from the sales of the various finance subsidiaries, and GE plans to use much of it to buy back stock, goosing the earnings per outstanding shares. So, looks great! Now, after all the dust settles in a year or two – then what? GE will have sold off its most profitable businesses, and will be relying on manufacturing to close the gap.

How do you think that will work out? How has it typically worked out over the last few decades?

—-

And, finally, yes, this is a bit of a cheap shot, but very telling:

They could be fresh from the LA Religious Education Conference, or the Life Teen rock band at many local churches.

Biology Hints at Destiny?

In the sense that almost all new ideas are bad?

Unencumbered speculation follows.

Evolutionary theory states that natural selection works on naturally occurring variations among the members of each generation of plants, animals, fungi, etc. Such variation occur as the result of mutations in the genes. (1) Further, both logically and empirically, almost all, as in 99%+, of those variations result in traits that are BAD, meaning here that those mutations do not result in positive differentiated survival rates among those having those variations. Almost all mutants die before being able to reproduce or never even get born. Only once in a very great while, genetically speaking, does a mutation result in something good, again in the sense of resulting in a higher survival (reproduction) rate than those without the mutation.

In other words, if you consider mutations to be like new ideas (completely out of bounds from a biological perspective, but bear with me), then biological new ideas are almost always bad ideas. How about no chlorophyll in a green plant? Nope, bad idea. How about legs on your head instead of antennae? Not so good. A second set of hind legs? Not helping.

And so on. Now let’s leap from biology to culture. Similarly, new ideas will tend strongly to be bad ideas – and for the same reason. Both livings things and cultures which have been around for any length of time consist of sets of delicately balanced functions and features that work together to produce the living result. In practice, it is virtually impossible to foresee what will happen when you change something. (2) The knee bone is connected to the shin bone; the leaves reach for the sun; just look at these claws and fangs! What do you thing they’re for? Start trying to change those things, and the organism or culture may not work anymore.

Finally, ‘work’ means very similar things for both living creatures and cultures, at least on a basic level. Both have to survive long enough to reproduce, or they get selected out, as it were – no offspring, no future – out of the gene pool! Cultures should also strive for truth, beauty and goodness and the happiness that can result from these things.

It’s really unlikely any particular new idea is going to get us there.

What triggered this thought was ruminating on the ruler/leader distinction that others have made. A ruler is meant to establish and enforce rules, tradition being the source of the bulk of rules, as in common law. A leader, on the other hand, is leading us someplace we are not. Given the discussion above, it is very unlikely that a leader will lead us anywhere we’d really want to go.

End unencumbered speculation.

1. More or less. It’s gets funky on several levels.

2. It’s perfectly possible to look back and see what has happened when the same or similar changes were made in the past – it’s that whole history/don’t learn it/repeat it thing – but, in the unlikely event of a truly new idea, how would you know?

Brontosaurus on Pluto?

XXX D BLLINE 26 DINO A FEAThere was all this brouhaha about Pluto not being a planet – but did anybody care that brontosauruses were declared to not exist, but to rather be merely misidentified apatosauruses?

Well, *I* cared! Who wants to settle for an apatosaurus, whatever that is, when they could have the one and only Thunder Lizard the size of a double-wide? Not me!

So let us pause amid our toils and trials, and rejoice that some geeks somewhere decided that maybe the brontosaurus did exist after all.

If they were to discover brontosauruses on the planet Pluto – now you’re talking! We’d need to throw down the boodog if that came to pass.

The Current Literary Unpleasantness

Manatee_at_Sea_World_Orlando_Mar_10

“Manatee at Sea World Orlando Mar 10″ by Ahodges7 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manatee_at_Sea_World_Orlando_Mar_10.JPG#/media/File:Manatee_at_Sea_World_Orlando_Mar_10.JPG

Blame Hegel.

Well, Calvin as re-imagined by Hegel, then filtered and refocused by Marx, then passed on down through generations of ever-lesser minds as if through pipes of ever-decreasing diameter, until you get the gist of the nub spewing out of a plastic straw: The Enlightened get the Big Picture of Oppression, not vouchsafed by any logic or reason, but by the direct and unmediated apprehension of their Enlightened Mind. Propositional Reason,  which is what Hegel calls what any of us lesser people would merely call ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, is for the little people, the unenlightened, those laboring under false consciousness.

The Enlightened just *know*, dude. Any attempts to reason with them is conclusive evidence You Don’t Get It. Through Unmerited Grace (unless they are members of an identified oppressed minority, in which case grace is *totally* merited) they have Seen the Truth, they get the grand Oppressor/Oppressed dialectic that explains and explains away everything. Those predestined to damnation by being members of an oppressor group labor under False Consciousness, and are beyond redemption.

It is not a bug that so called Social Justice Warriors are totally unreasonable – it is a feature. And not just any feature, it’s the feature for which you buy the product – once you’ve bought into an Oppressor/Oppressed dynamic of one sort or another, you never have to think or risk losing an argument again! You don’t even have to suffer the indignity of finding out what your opponents think – you can just tell them what they think! That they will disagree and reject what you tell them they think on the flimsy grounds that it’s not, you know, what they think, is to be totally expected from those unenlightened rubes. They’re Oppressors! Of course they won’t see it!

If you no idea what any of this is all about, follow the link to John C Wright’s blog in my blogroll.

For my part, I am strongly disinclined from getting involved in such stuff, except that authors I respect and whose books and blogs I’ve read are being obviously libeled by people for whom the truth means nothing. You don’t have to guess what they think or say – it’s there for anyone to see.

So I stand with them as honorable, reasonable men and women.

Science!: Who’s Happier – by Ideology, of Course

Adventures in Cargo Cult Science. The sometimes interesting website FiveThirtyEight has an article up titled Maybe Conservatives Just Think They’re Happier Than Liberals. Before we get into the laughable excuses for science – Science! – that the credential-hunting grad students will sink to in order to add a couple semi-lucrative letters to the ends of their names, (1) let’s look at the absurdity of the question and the curiously delicate selectivity and, well, hypocrisy in the way it is framed up.

Because, really, who, exactly, is so deeply interested in how ideology relates to human happiness? The Lover of Science, in his moments of pure desire for Knowledge? Or maybe more likely an ideologue who needs the world to conform to his ideology? Because that turns out to be the problem: survey data indicates, and has long indicated, that ‘conservatives’ are, as a group, more happy than liberals as a group.

And that Just Won’t Do. All the sudden, people who generally can’t be bothered to worry about petty details such as how survey data might not be the simple truth about things but is just what somebody who is willing to take a survey is willing to say under such and such conditions at such and such moments, or that ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ are not clearly understood or defined groups, or that ‘happiness’ is a pretty broad and vague term as well, find they urgently need to exercise their scientific training and ask some questions about all this. Of course, when we’re surveying about sexual behaviors or attitudes toward marriage or any of a million things where the results are easy to spin as suggesting that more of whatever we’re selling is exactly what is needed, none of these issues come up, but when survey results suggest that those insufferable closed-minded, bigoted people over there are *happy* in their ignorance – well, Something Must Be Wrong.

Thus, the irony of the title of the piece: Maybe conservatives just think they’re happy? What would that even mean to say that, under modern modes of thought? If I were to use the classical idea of happiness being the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, with activity, soul and virtue terms of the philosopher’s art, then at least theoretically you could maybe measure happiness somehow (2). But happiness in the modern sense seems to mean little more than freedom to exercise the will with as little constraint as possible. Happiness would then tend toward two polar opposites – a Libertarian version where happiness lies somewhere in the land where I get to do whatever I want as long as I stay out of your face, and a Totalitarian view where happiness is conformity to Right Thinking, which all good people by definition agree with, is imposed on all because it’s what they ought to want even if they don’t know it. That’s the fundamental idea behind every leftist reformation since the French Revolution.

The classical idea of happiness falls nowhere on the plane defined by the Libertarian/Totalitarian axes. Yet, even in these crepuscular times, the classical idea is the one that most corresponds to real happiness in the world, in so far as it appears that people doing good for others tend to be the most happy (3). Continue reading

Kid Stuff & Week in Review

1. While sitting outside a Jamba Juice store, overheard a couple little boys talking with their mom:

Little boy # 1: Mom, when you pass the driving test, do they give you a free car?

Mom: (unintelligible)

LB #1: Then how do you get one?

LB #2; You have to *buy* it!

Life is harsh.

2. Last night, we had a half-dozen or so little boys over for the Caboose’s 11th birthday sleepover, delayed over 3 weeks since his actual birthday due to sickness and scheduling. After extensive trampolining, video-game playing and personal pizza making, the living room was converted into a single massive blanket & sheet fort, and about midnight, kids actually went to sleep. (Sleep? I believe we were made of sterner stuff Back In The Old Days(tm))

This morning, I made the crew pancakes. There was some leftover pizza. A kindly neighbor, who buys a box of donuts for a Saturday morning gathering of Mormons of some sort, brought over the leftovers, as he often does (we’re the neighbor with the most kids around).

So: was little boy heaven achieved? Breakfast of pizza, donuts and pancakes? My wife whipped up a batch of whipped cream to go on, I imagine, the pancakes, but who an I to judge? Here’s a little photographic evidence:

Historic Breakfast

In order: the remains of pizza, syrups, donuts, whipped cream, and pancakes, during a lull in the action.

3. On a somewhat more serious note, someone on Twitter pointed out that 18 minutes of conveniently erased tape was considered damning evidence against Nixon, but now days, years of government emails go missing not once, not twice, but an amazingly coincidental number of times as was required to remove all trace of thousands of IRS and State Depart official records that could have shed some light on certain activities that, on the surface appear to have been, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, traitorously criminal , and – what? We who are curious are somehow the bad guys, while those members of the press who brought down Nixon for far, far less serious crimes(1) are heros to this day? This right here is a farther, faster decent into unchecked government power than even I, at my most curmudgeonly, thought we were now capable of.

4. Finally, I’m of mixed feelings about the following, which appeared in Facebook the other day – it’s illustrative but a little childish. The game is to take spewings from a Social Justice Warrior, and replace their targeted ‘hate group’ with ‘Jews’ and then frame it up (usually with a picture) as something Hitler said. It’s enlightening, I suppose, if one had failed to notice the similarity before – I mean, you either hold individuals accountable (judging by the ‘content of their character’) or you condemn all individuals within a group for the crimes of the group – blacks, say, or capitalists, or men, even.  The first is what we think of as justice – each suffering or rewarded according to his merits – while the second is just tribal bigotry with several coats of Hegelian/Marxist paint on it. I don’t know if funny pictures playing the Hitler card will help, even if they are accurate and justified.

So, I guess I won’t link it here, unless somebody asks.

1. Not that Nixon didn’t deserve what he got, but if cheating to win an election were such a terrible crime, how does any politician from Chicago ever get hold office? Compare this crime with fomenting revolt in foreign governments – that’s what our cheerleading of the ‘Arab Spring’ (how’s that working out, btw?) was, effectively, and having said revolts result in our own diplomats getting murdered by mobs, or using the most coercive and invasive arm of the government – the IRS – to get at your enemies and, well, cheat at an election – and THEN have vast numbers of official government documents (that’s what the emails are, no matter what certain harpies and sirens may claim) be admittedly destroyed – and that’s ok? So OK that only a partisan meanie would even bring it up? That’s Teapot Dome we see receding quickly in the political rear view mirror.