Light Bulb Goes On

Just today dawned on me, while contemplating how far Scientific American and other once noble scientific organs and organizations (like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists mentioned in the last post) have fallen or have been conquered by political hacks: given Pournelle’s Iron Law, to take over an organization, one needn’t take over the leadership positions – one merely needs to take over the bureaucracy. Sooner rather than later, that bureaucracy will become the real leaders, and can then get whoever they want as nominal leaders.

One day, I imagine some lover of science who established or joined some group in order to further science will wake up to find some hack who joined in order to run the bureaucracy is his boss, or the one who approves his hires or funding – and he leaves or is driven out. Someone more amenable to the bureaucracy’s goals then get the job or position.

So if you want to co-op an existing organization for your ends, don’t go after the leadership jobs – just get appointed manager or assistant treasurer or HR head – and be patient (and not all that patient) and you can soon call the shots.

This explains a number of things I’ve seen. Y’all probably knew this already?

Guacamole Problems & Pool

On the lighter side – reminiscing –

Coining a phrase here: Guacamole Problem. A guacamole problem is where you think you’re up against a serious or challenging obstacle, but it turns out not to be much of a challenge and you end up feeling foolish for having taken it so seriously. A Guacamole Problem is not worth winning, or at least not worth investing any worry in.

Origin: once in my callow youth, there was a girl. Keeping this sub-novel length, she liked me, I sort of liked her – and this other guy, a nice guy, really liked her. I was (and, to a lesser extent, still am) socially pretty clueless, so I was picking up on none of this.

Well, we were part of a chambers singer group, so what with rehearsals and travel and such, hung out together a lot. Dude B was trying to get attention from the girl, who paid attention to me – that I hardly noticed. The subject of guacamole comes up, and he says: I make great guacamole. I say: so do I! So we agree to each make guacamole and bring it to the next get together.

Well, as a Southern Californian and amatuer cook, I take my guacamole seriously: fresh minced garlic, fresh squeezed limes, finely chopped red onions, Mexican (has to be mexican!) oregano, New Mexican ground red Hatch chile powder – you get the drift. I make damn fine guacamole.

So I make a nice big bowl, eager to see what Dude B has to bring. But I had no dog in the fight – I was not desperate for the girl’s attention (I sort of had it anyway more or less by accident), nor did I need validation that my guac rocked. Dude B, on the other hand, really wanted the girl’s attention, really needed validation – and, sadly, made totally pedestrian guacamole.

So, I “won”, without really knowing what I’d won. Dude B was crushed – he was taking this all very seriously, but he felt compelled – he really was a nice guy – to tell me how very much better my guacamole was. As the reality of the situation slowly entered my dull and dense mind, I just felt bad for him. He hadn’t lost a dumb food contest – in his mind, he’d gone a long way toward losing the girl I didn’t really even want! (On a side note, I gotta admit that most any girl worth having would have to prefer the guy who makes the better guacamole, other things being close to equal. There is that.)

Image result for shooting poolSecond, we are going out in a moment on a company team building exercise. It will involve opportunities to bowl and shoot pool, among other teamy things. My knees are not up to much bowling, although I do enjoy it. BUT: back in the day – WAY back in the day, I was pretty good at pool.

At St. John’s, as a freshman I got a dorm room that shared a wall with the Upper Common Room (meaning: not much sleep if there were a party) and upstairs from a pool table. Did I mention I’m a terrible student? One of the ways that manifested was that I spent a lot more time shooting pool than, say, studying Greek. (I was 18 and possibly stupider than most – it got a little better over time.)

So, I started gettin good. In the second semester, somebody put together an 8-ball tournament, singles and doubles. Well, Wes, a sophomore, was the only guy in the school I couldn’t regularly beat, couple other guys were about my level, and everybody else had to get lucky to beat me. So, I lose the singles to Wes – but he got cocky, and got his girlfriend to be his doubles partner.

I recruited a dude for my partner who was a fidgety mess – unless he was stoned. Stoned, he shot pretty good pool.

Well, he showed up for the finals stoned. Wes played brilliantly, and, had he picked a decent partner, would have most likely beat us. But his partner – a lovely young woman, and, you know, OK at pool, wasn’t good enough. It was a pure defensive battle – no leaves. But the girl wasn’t good enough to not leave me and my partner some shots – and, every time she did, we’d just kill ’em.

It was close. Wes was really good, and my partner was really stoned – but we won! The prize was dinner at a local restaurant.

Due to transportation issues, the winners decided to go together. So, Wes, a sophomore, of course takes his girlfriend with his singles champion prize. I end up with a date with a stoner sophomore dude – who had money, back then, to do a dinner date? Not me or him.

It was weird. Food was good, though.

Anyway, I have to go easy on the bowling for my knees’ sake, and I have to go easy on the pool for my ego’s sake, since I’ve hardly shot since – had to go cold turkey or they’d have thrown me out of school eventually. I get rusty fast if I’m not shooting all the time.

Hope your day is going well!


Choosing Ends vs Means

Yes, I’m a bit obsessed with the Trolley Problem, because in it a whole mess of Bad Things converge in a uniquely clear way. Further, it seems to me the Trolley Problem is a clear example of what I was getting on about that, somehow, was brought to the attention of and earned the scorn of some Reddit folks. Yet further, Mike Flynn posted about how poorly the Democratic Party is forming and attempting to make its points regarding the so-called Affordable Care Act, which, as is so often the case with obsessions, brought the Trolley Problem back to mind. Because it’s all related. No, really!

Funny ol’ world, innit?

So, first, at the post linked above, the esteemed TOF gives an example of what really qualifies as not only fake news, but really inept political maneuvering:

Recently, for example, the Democratic Party was shocked, shocked we tell you, to learn that the Republican Party intended to follow through on its promise to dismantle the Affordable [sic] Care Act. The skyrocketing insurance costs in premiums and deductibles consequent to this act was one of the factors leading to the narrow defeat of its perceived heir and champion, Mrs. Clinton, in the recent election, although this has not been much mentioned. So the Democrats in Congress held a photo op announcing their intention to oppose this opposition. So far, so good. This is the normal procedure — sic et non — pioneered in the medieval world.

This was their opposition:

One immediately senses the overall ineptness that led the Party to its losses of Congressional seats, state legislatures, governorships, and now the presidency itself. Their sound-bite fails on two levels: the visceral and the rational.

The slogan “Make America Sick Again”, TOF asserts, fails on a visceral level, since, among other things, it’s not even clear who or what is being blamed until one (not likely) reads the fine print.  Further, the slogan makes no sense: neither the ACA nor its repeal will cause or fail to cause any sickness. The ACA is all about who *pays* for *care* of sickness.

Read the whole thing. While I agree with all this, I think there’s another level, and it has to do with what the ACA is in the minds of the audience: is it merely one among many government (and private sector!) programs designed to help defray and control the costs of medical care? Or is it Wonderful Healthcare for Everyone at Very Little Cost (or WHEVLC)? In other words, is support for the specific laws, regulations, and bureaucracies set up in the actual 1,990 page, 363,086 word bill itself, or is support based on the belief that the ACA is the same as WHEVLC?

I think the answer is obvious: those who supported the bill stated, almost without exception (that I can think of at the moment) that they were favoring WHEVLC. There were practically no popular discussions of specific provisions by those who favored the bill except for touting the Big Three of Pre-existing conditions(1), kids stay on parents’ insurance until they’re 48 or so (I may be off a little, something like that) and subsidies for people too poor to buy insurance. The other 1,900+ pages? Not talked about much.

Meanwhile, almost all opposition to the bill focused on details and mechanics. The most pertinent detail was the express need to pass the bill to see what was in it. That seems somewhat dubious, but it makes complete sense: the supporters of the ACA really didn’t care about how the worker’s paradise WHEVLC worked mechanically, because they were voting for WHEVLC, not the details. Problems, if any, would get ironed out in a few years, then everybody in America could walk into glistening medical facilities any time they needed to, get top notch care from caring professionals for anything that ailed them, and walk out confident the bill would be taken care of! Who could possibly oppose that?

Basically (and of course there are exceptions) one side viewed the decision to be between two ends: the then-current health care system, and WHEVLC; the other saw the decision as picking means: does the ACA make things better?  As I commented on Mr. Flynn’s blog:

One must assume the ends are known, because decisions are made, in the modern world, by choosing between ends. The Pragmatists, starting with Pierce, want to make the ends justify the means, so they habitually assume they know the outcomes and are deciding on them. A Pragmatist of the John Dewey species would be lost at sea if one were to demand moral decisions be made on principles, because, practically, the ends are unknown in any but very trivial cases. This is a Forbidden Thought.

Thus, the “Trolley Problem” is used as an example of moral decision making: a fantastic set of assumptions where all the crucial pieces are assumed to be known with certainty so that only the ends – 1 guy dies or 5 guys die – is considered relevant.

A real example of a moral decision might be: You promised to love, honor, serve and be faithful to your wife, but this morning you found out you didn’t like her anymore. What do you do?

No ends in sight. But that sort of question wouldn’t be very popular, less so the answer. So we assume, instead, that we know the ends *for sure* so that we can be Good People and chose Wonderful Healthcare for Everybody at Very Little Cost (WHEVLC, let’s say). And then make up whatever numbers and stories we need to help us feel good about it. In such a moral world, those who don’t like the ACA don’t want WHEVLC = what evil, evil people! The idea that there’s a difference between choosing ACA and getting WHEVLC cannot be entertained.

Back to the inane slogan. What seems to be happening to me is that the Democrats have decided, consciously or not, to abandon trying to convince the ‘undecided’ voters, in this case, those who may have become disenchanted with the ACA over the past 6 years. This slogan is perfect for the die-hard fans: it parodies Trump’s hateful (to them) campaign slogan, and hangs all the *inevitable* evil to come from failing to love WHEVLC on Trump’s shoulders. And the people who hate poor people and women – you know, people who would dare ask how this WHEVLC voodoo is supposed to work – well, they are, what is the word? Oh, yes, contemptible! Oops, meant Deplorable! That’s it!

On some level, I wonder if the current core of the Democratic Party believes people’s minds can be changed by argument or information. I suspect not. Therefore, a ‘better’ slogan might not be possible.

Finally, if one of those Reddit readers were to wander by, I ask: Did you ever hear about the trolley problem in school? How was it presented? Was a vigorous counterargument proposed and championed? More generally, was the possibility that moral decisions simply cannot be based on ends seriously discussed?  I suspect, but do not know, that Pragmatism is taught, more or less unconsciously, and that objections – fatal objections – to it are simply not seriously discussed. Well?

If this post isn’t enough, check here for further dissection.

  1. In insurance-land, that pre-existing conditions clause invites what is called ‘adverse selection’. In general, it means that buyers have information sellers don’t. People are more likely to buy insurance if they’re sure or think it likely they’ll need it. If I buy lots of life insurance because I know that the Mafia has a contract out on me, but don’t relay that information to the life insurance salesman, that’s adverse selection. That pre-existing conditions coverage clause codifies adverse selection – the seller must at least pretend they don’t know about your heart troubles, etc. Thus, the wisest, if not most moral, path is to buy insurance when you need it, say, right before you go into the hospital for surgery you’ve known about needing for years. Further, if you are young and healthy, it’s only a small risk that you’ll be hit with something bad before you have a chance to buy insurance for it. The premiums of healthy people who don’t make many big claims help keep costs down for sick people who do. This means sellers of insurance must take into account 1) having healthy people not contribute to the system (This reality is recognized – a little  – by penalizing those who don’t buy insurance. Then it’s just math: is the penalty or the insurance cheaper?) and 2) having to cover expensive treatment for people who only contribute a few payments into the system while taking large amounts out. Ultimately, this means prices have to go up – for everybody. Hmmm – did they? Every sane businessman and economist predicted they would.

Friday Bullets

simbang-gabi1. Simbang Gabi! Today starts the 9 day novena in preparation for Christmas celebrated by Filipinos everywhere. Filipinos in our area have long gathered at 5:30 a.m. for mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, followed by a more-or-less traditional Filipino breakfast: chicken soup (which comes in a surprising variety of forms), salabat (sweet ginger tea), hard boiled eggs and – things. Among the things are, in some combination, tangerines, rolls, ham/sausage, and a selection of wildly-colored sweet things.
(Once asked someone at a Related imageSimbang Gabi breakfast why the sweet things were always bright purple or orange or some other neon color – she were completely baffled by the question. I gather these are the natural (for some values of ‘natural’) colors for these delicacies.)

The reason we get up at 5:00 a.m. for Simbang Gabi isn’t the food. It’s the chance to pray and prepare for Christmas with the wonderful, warm and welcoming people.

2. This is interesting. The unnaturally strong – heroic, even – ability to embrace cognitive dissonance can be understood as a necessary condition to embracing Marx and Hegel. Hegel, after all, makes it a big point to reject the Law of Noncontradiction. The dedicated acolyte merely awaits the explication of the proper synthesis that suspends the contradiction and reveals, respectively, the Right Side of History or the Spirit unfolding. Sure, it makes no sense – but it doesn’t have to! Just so long as you have the proper feeelings about things. Insights are like the gifts of the Holy Spirit – beyond understanding.

Most enthusiasts seem to be simply crazy, or, more mercifully if more dangerously, they value their group membership and sense of rectitude more than logical consistency. What is a little – well, a lot of – inconsistency compared to properly-fanned righteous indignation and commitment to the Right Side of History?

This enthusiasm in the face of disconfirmation even claims for itself the title of reasonable and science based. Back when I was young and naive, I would have found this beyond amazing.

3.Was talking with a braver man than I last night. He mentioned that one of his neighbors had bought a Tesla, and was waxing rhapsodic (use even pressure and a soft cloth) about its virtues, when my friend mentioned that perhaps he should thank him and all his other neighbors for subsidizing his toy. He pursued it enough to get the new toy owner to admit that, well, yea, there is that, but who wouldn’t take advantage of such a deal?

How about all of us who have not bought Teslas?

4. Reading When Prophecy Fails on the recommendation (I think) of John C. Wright, as a means to understanding the fervor and desperation of the folks who believe the last election was *wrong*. I should not be surprised – zealots and courtesans always think free elections are wrong, unless they somehow manage to keep the fire lit(1) and the king’s table well-provisioned. Any result that calls into question that for which they are zealous or threatens to thin the king’s larder or – God forbid – the king’s rule – that’s a *wrong* result.

Anyway, the authors propose that, when events ‘disconfirm’ (what a dumb word) the prophesy, adherents double down – proselytising intensifies, roughly in proportion to the mockery of outsiders.  The authors point out how holding onto a disconfirmed belief is hard on your own – you’d have to be crazy! – but, if you get enough people together, you have a support group, and can make up theories, make new predictions, explain stuff away to each other and otherwise keep the hounds of cognitive dissonance at bay.

The theory here seems to be that the Left thought that they really were on the right side of history, and that the sparkly unicorns of Marx would soon – it’s inevitable! – spread the magic fairy-dust of progressive Nirvana across the land. Bernie Hillary would take all the stuff from the mean bad people and give it to the needy people in a totally non totalitarian way! Goodthink would drive out Badthink, everybody would accept everybody else and their preferred pronouns, Muslims, who were only acting up because Christian white people were picking on them, would embrace (rather than throw off the top of a minaret)  uppity women and gays. Sure, you might have to kill a few million people – billion, tops – who cling to their God and guns, but, as Lord Farquaad put it: “Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

Then people elected the wrong guy! Their bubble world was shattered! Weeping! Threats! Machinations! Inside-out proselytizing by attempting to suppress that part of the fake news that said mean things. (The fake news that still hasn’t disowned Walter Duranty – the fakest news man ever, who would make Baghdad Bob blush – are OK. They may lie like rugs, but their hearts are in the right place and they aren’t *mean*!)

The bad news (insofar as we are buying what is, after all, a nice theory with only two hand-picked examples to back it up. Best one can say is that it seems reasonable) is that it will take a series of extreme, irrefutable, and clear disconfirmations before the group breaks up. For now, what you see is what you get: doubling down, telling each other stories, trying to spin it so that they didn’t *really* lose.

The fall of the Soviet Union set this crowd back a bit, but they very neatly transferred allegiance back to a more spiritual Communism, one untainted by the failures of the past.(2) The election of Trump, oddly, seems to have caused way more panic than Moscow’s face-plant. The desperate silence over Venezuela and contemptible whitewashing of Castro are shadows of the monstrous horrors this same crowd overlooked in the Soviet Union and continues to overlook in China. The continued ‘religion of peace’ nonsense regarding Islam’s 1,400 year sacking of the West continues. They soldier on.

So, maybe what we’d need is for Trump to be a wild success, super popular and cruise to reelection. I’m not holding my breath, but I will say that, so far, he’s exceeded my admittedly very modest expectations. It may be enough that he proves to not be Hitler. At any rate, per the theory in the book, it will take at least another mega-disconfirmation or two to bring the beast down for good. In the meantime, perhaps there will be some room for a little sense and reason in all those heads emptied by exploding? One can hope.

  1. True zealots are never happy with incremental victory, but always desire to burn things down to the ground. Only way you can be sure you got *all* the bad guys. Then they start burning each other just to make really, really sure. Then the people embrace Napoleon to make it stop.
  2. That’s why we hear talk of the end of history – if history were still going on, this whole movement would be revealed for the doomed failure it is and always has been. No, we must assume a new heaven and a new earth, one in which what has always failed will now, by magic, succeed.





Democracy and All That

Image result for amber waves of grain
Amber waves of grain. Had to be done. You’ll see. You may also want to hum ‘America the Beautiful’ softly to yourself. 

I’m not a professional political scientist or sociologist. Then again, neither were Washington, Adams, Jefferson and that crowd, so there’s that. Girding up my intellectual loins, as it were, here we go – unburdening myself of some ideas that have occupied my thoughts these last few weeks:

American Democracy has at its roots the idea that the wisdom of our nation resides in its people. (1)

Democracy can only work – can only keep from descending instantly into mob rule – when the people understand that they are the keepers of a Commonwealth.

A commonwealth is that set of moral, intellectual, habitual and physical treasures held in common, for the good of all, and especially for the good of our descendents.

This is what we mean by a Republic: a political structure in which The People recognize that they hold a commonwealth, which it is the duty of all the people in the Republic to protect and hand on.

Modern attempts to denigrate our history, to flatten the political universe so that Washington and Adams are no better, really, than Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, is, in addition to being numbingly stupid, a betrayal and rejection of our commonwealth and the duties having a commonwealth place upon us.

Rejecting or failing in our duties to protect and defend the commonwealth damages not only our patrimony, but our souls. We fritter away our treasure, and our children’s treasure and enslave them and ourselves.

Our freedom is an essential feature of our commonwealth. It is one of those moral, intellectual and habitual treasures we have had handed on to us, that it is our duty to nurture and hand it on to our children.

Our liberty and rights were not won by this generation. Winning them has not fallen to us. Defending and nurturing them (back to health, sadly) is our job.

The pursuit of political management by the Best and the Brightest – an elite assumed to have more wisdom than the people – is, in America, fundamentally an act of treason.

Rule by the Best and Brightest is the outcome fervently longed for by the founders, intellectual descendents, and assorted courtesans and useful idiots, of Harvard.(2)

The election of Trump is, in many senses, stupid. However, it is far, far wiser and more in keeping with the idea that we, the people, are the defenders of the Republic to elect Trump than to elect someone who is beloved of Harvard. On the scale of errors one can make in a Republic, electing an arrogant and impulsive side-show barker is far to be prefered to electing someone whose fundamental goal is making elections irrelevant.

We know that making elections irrelevant is the fundamental goal of the self-declared Best and Brightest (if we naively still harbored any doubts) by how they have reacted to losing: they have brought to bear every weapon they have to destroy the legitimacy of Trump and, thus inescapably, to destroy the process by which he was elected.  This is far more serious than just a bunch of sore losers – this is a declaration of war (cold, so far – let’s hope it stays that way) on the very idea of a Republic.

Let us teach our children, and remind each other, that we are the keepers of a Commonwealth, which we hold in trust, and explain to all that this wealth we hold in common is not, primarily, purple mountains’ majesty nor amber waves of grain, nor silver nor gold.  The most precious gift we have received is the idea of government, under God, of, by, and for the People.

Holding and defending these core truths is the battle. We gain moral and intellectual fortitude by defending them. We form good and gracious habits, virtuous habits, by living these truths.

No republic can long exists unless virtuous people sustain it. Virtuous people sustain our republic by living the intellectual, moral, and habitual truths on which it is built. The daily living out of these virtues makes the wealth common – makes a republic a commonwealth.

(Let me shove this soapbox back under the desk. OK, done.)

  1. This idea is lurking behind much of the writing and all of the founding institutions of our nation. Brownson, in the 1840s, explicitly used it to dispute the importation of Prussian schooling, by pointing out that such schooling was wholly based on the notion that the wisdom of the people resided in their leaders, and thus was entirely unacceptable to Americans, who built their nation on the belief that the wisdom of the nation resided in the people.
  2. While physical Harvard is historically the heart and head of this tendency in America, I’m here using the word to refer to the widespread hopes of many that the wise and powerful will fix things for us. People harboring such hopes always assume, after the manner in which a vast majority of people seem to think they are above average, that they, personally, will be the ones calling the shots, or, failing that, that those calling the shots will act only in accord with their wishes. It’s like they’ve never heard of the French Revolution or Stalin’s purges….

Chesterton Quotation

I HAVE discovered that the New Prudery is much narrower and more prudish than the Old Prudery; even of the most dingy and dismal latter days of Puritanism. The discovery interests me not a little, for I always thought I had a pure and perfect and spotless hatred of the ordinary sort of Puritanism. But the pure Puritan is not so grim and negative and repressive as the pure Progressive, The New Prudery does not come out of stale sects or old shabby chapels: it comes out of all the new clubs, new leagues, new guilds of art and culture, new summer schools of science and philanthropy. It is altogether a thing of the Future; or at least of the Futurists, who think they will dominate the Future. It is even notably a thing of the young, and, what is far more extraordinary, of the young who would call themselves the free. And the Ten Commandments of the Christian, or even the Ten Hundred Commandments of the Puritan, are themselves like perfect freedom compared with the terrorism and rigidity of its new Taboos.

On the New Prudery, Avowals and Denials, G. K. Chesterton, 1935


Election Day: Links, Bullet Points, etc.

  • Solzhenitsyn: Always good for a bracing slap or six right across the chops. He seems to think Harvard isn’t all that:

This new way of thinking, which has imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs …

  • Thinking today, after the polls close, I’ll break my fast with some guacamole and a very strong margarita or two – it can be seen either as celebratory or a retreat into comfort food. (By all reports, I make killer guacamole (chop, don’t crush, the avocados; garlic, fresh lime and cilantro – plenty of all three) and margaritas (Cuervo is death – use Sauza Commemorativo, Grand Marnier and the best store-bought mix you can get (making your own margarita mix is past the diminishing returns threshold, IMHO)). My beloved will need it, too.

Alex Rogan: There’s no fleet, no Starfighters, no plan? One ship, you me, and that’s it?
Grig: Exactly. Xur thinks you’re still on Earth. Classic military strategy: surprise attack.
Alex Rogan: It’ll be a slaughter!
Grig: That’s the spirit!
Alex Rogan: No, MY slaughter! One ship against the whole armada?
Grig: Yes, one gunstar against the armada. I’ve always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.


Grig:  I had hoped that by putting you in the thick  of battle, a great Starfighter would emerge. But alas. Perhaps… there was never one within you to begin with.  I shall take you home.  You still may live a long and fruitful life back there. That is, until the Kodan reach Earth.


Lord Kril: Damage report!

Kodan Officer: Guidance system out. Auxiliary steering out.

Lord Kril: Divert! Divert!

Kodan Officer: She won’t answer the helm! We’re locked into the moon’s gravitational pull. What do we do?

[sound of Lord Kril’s eyepiece swinging over left eye]

Lord Kril: We die.


Alex Rogan: We did it.

Grig: Yes, we actually did, didn’t we?