Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The battle of life is, in most cases, fought up-hill

From Get off the programme by Paul Stokes.
Last week I found myself in the self-help section of a city centre bookstore. I had expected to be immersed in crime, but the shop had done what all shops seem to do these days once you know where everything is, which is move it all around again.

It being January, I was surrounded by people who clearly meant to be there, and who were really trying to find themselves, with a bit of assistance from titles such as Change Your Life in Seven Days, Awaken the Giant Within and Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.


Resisting the urge to shout ‘For God’s sake just pull yourself together’, I thought that while I was there I would look for the one book you really would expect to see in such a place: the Victorian classic Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, an international bestseller in its time, and the book which pretty much started the whole thing off in the first place.


He demands effort in two ways. First, while the book is easy to read it takes some determination to get all the way through. It is, after all, a compilation of hundreds of mini-biographies drawn together to emphasise the same point: that true success and happiness can be achieved only through hard work, perseverance and self-restraint: that is, the ability to forgo some current pleasure for increased security further on in life. It is repetitious, but that is the point. Getting through it in the first place is good practice for the rigours ahead.

Second — and here he really parts company with the genre to which his book gave its name — he offers no quick fix. His aim instead is to show that many of those people whose lives seem so effortlessly successful in fact owe their success to years of hard work. So he recounts the tales of how Sir Isaac Newton, when asked by what means he had worked out his extraordinary discoveries, replied, ‘By always thinking unto them’, and how Sir Joshua Reynolds, when asked how long it took him to paint a certain picture, replied simply, ‘All my life.’ These days Smiles is dismissed, normally by people who have not read him, as the arch-priest of a selfish, competitive individualism, when he was nothing of the sort. It is not a new problem. Only seven years after he published the book Smiles described the title as ‘unfortunate’ because those who judged the work by it alone had concluded it was ‘the very opposite of what it really is’. In fact Smiles denounced the worship of power, wealth and conspicuous consumption. For him the real aim of life was to develop character, and the true test of character was the manner in which we conduct ourselves towards others.

He attacked the self-centred, get-aheadquick mentality which is exhibited by so many modern self-help books. ‘To regard self-culture ... as a means of getting past others in the world ... is to place it on a very low level,’ he said. ‘To go about whining and bemoaning our pitiful lot because we fail in achieving that success in life ... is the mark of a small, and often of a sour mind.’ With those words Smiles also demonstrates that he had a good idea, some 150 years ago, of where the modern self-help movement is coming from: that is, from an inflated view of our ‘rights’, and specifically our ‘rights’ to instant success and constant happiness. The self-help book today sets out to answer the question ‘Why am I not as successful as I deserve to be?’ Smiles’s book asks the question, ‘What have you done to deserve success?’ Smiles saw that a lot of people then, as today, resented the fact that the Sir Isaacs and the Sir Joshuas were more successful than they, without actually understanding why. ‘Many are apt to feel despondent,’ he wrote, ‘because they do not “get on” in the world so fast as they think they deserve to do. Having planted their acorn, they expect to see it grow into an oak at once.’ Instant oaks are everywhere in today’s self-help books, which is the key to their attractiveness and their lack of success in treating the problems they claim to address. You may have been a feckless loser for 40 years but that’s no problem, we can sort that out in a week. Mental, emotional, physical and financial life in tatters? That we can sort immediately. If only.


Life’s a struggle, or, as Smiles himself put it, ‘the battle of life is, in most cases, fought up-hill’. Too many people give up the battle too early, in the same way that we appear to have given up too early on Self-Help.
Gutenberg has a copy.


From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Lost and Found, 2004 by Sally Storch

Lost and Found, 2004 by Sally Storch.

Click to enlarge.

Remembrance by Aline Kilmer

by Aline Kilmer

I WENT back to a place I knew
When I was very, very small;
The same old yellow roses grew
Against the same old wall.

Each thing I knew was in its place;
The well, the white stones by the road,
The box-hedge with its cobweb lace,
And a small spotted toad.

And yet the place seemed changed and still;
The house itself had shrunk, I know.
And then my eyes began to fill
For I had always loved it so!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Of 37 phyla of multicellular animals, only six have evolved sight

From Life's Greatest Inventions from New Scientist.

The list of ten are:
1. Multicellularity

2. The eye

3. The brain

4. Language

5. Photosynthesis

6. Sex

7. Death

8. Parasitism

9. Superorganism

10. Symbiosis
All the essays are worth reading. A few observations from the essays.
Yet bigger and more complex isn’t necessarily better. As King points out, unicellular life still vastly outnumbers multicellular life in terms of both biomass and species numbers. “So you could say unicellular life is the most successful, but that multicellular life is the most beautiful and dramatic.”


However, sight is not universal. Of 37 phyla of multicellular animals, only six have evolved it, so it might not look like such a great invention after all – until you stop to think. The six phyla that have vision (including our own, chordates, plus arthropods and molluscs) are the most abundant, widespread and successful animals on the planet.


A nervous system allows two extremely useful things to happen: movement and memory. If you’re a plant and your food source disappears, that’s just tough. But if you have a nervous system that can control muscles, then you can actually move around and seek out food, sex and shelter.


Armed with this, finding food would have been the top priority the earliest water-dwelling creatures. Organisms need to sort out nutritious from toxic food, and the brain helps them do that. Sure enough, look at any animal and you will find the brain is always near the mouth. In some of the most primitive invertebrates, the oesophagus actually passes right through the brain.


The more complex functions of the human brain – social interaction, decision-making and empathy, for example – seem to have evolved from these basic systems controlling food intake. The sensations that control what we decide to eat became the intuitive decisions we call gut instincts. The most highly developed parts of the human frontal cortex that deal with decisions and social interactions are right next to the parts that control taste and smell and movements of the mouth, tongue and gut. There is a reason we kiss potential mates – it’s the most primitive way we know to check something out.


In a sense, language is the last word in biological evolution. That’s because this particular evolutionary innovation allows those who possess it to move beyond the realms of the purely biological. With language, our ancestors were able to create their own environment – we now call it culture – and adapt to it without the need for genetic changes.

Elephant misbehavior

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Bather at a rock (Baigneuse au rocher), 1911 by Félix Vallotton

Bather at a rock (Baigneuse au rocher), 1911 by Félix Vallotton

Click to enlarge.

A command economy is like being on steroids

Heh. From Instapundit.
And a command economy is like being on steroids – your muscles get big but your testicles shrink, so it’s ultimately not sustainable.

Shared environment (as constructed) is back

I have discussed in the past the conundrum between what the data says about parent's affect on child development (it is all in the genes and in the non-shared environment and parents are a trivial impact) and my personal sense that parental influence is more important than the data indicates.
Children’s personal characteristics are the product of three sources: shared environment, non-shared environment, and parents’ genes.


More suggestive than conclusive
I am quite keen on evidence-based decision-making. The tension between what I instinctively believe to be true versus what the data indicates to be true has been challenging. From More suggestive than conclusive:
As an example, for years I would have argued with reasonably good evidence that parental influence, and not just genes, were instrumental in childhood outcomes. I accept, with some asterisks, the evidence that genes are a stronger predictor of childhood outcomes than we used to accord. But many take a strong position that all childhood outcomes are due to genes and non-shared environment (outside the home); parents don't matter.

I natively want to believe otherwise but I can see the evidence as it exists. However, I suspect we are not defining the boundaries between shared environment and non-shared environment with great enough specificity and we are not paying enough attention to developmental sequencing.

More specifically, I suspect parents actually do exercise more substantial influence over their children's life outcomes, not via the time spent in the home (shared environment), but rather in all the attendant decisions about a child's environment. Where they live, the neighbors to whom they are exposed, childhood friendships that are encouraged or discouraged, school attended, church community involvement, sports, etc. Parents create, consciously or unconsciously, a developmental ecosystem around a child, most of which parents may not be, and usually are not, involved in directly. My suspicion is that by developmental ecosystem choices, parents are in fact shaping their children's life outcomes but doing so indirectly.

I think the level of our research sophistication is at this point still undeveloped and that when we begin taking into account indirect parental influence, we will find, counter to the current research, that in fact, much of the variance in life outcomes will be attributable to parental decision-making.

Is that motivated reasoning or is it rationalizing away from the nascent evidence. No way to know at the moment but we will know in time.
Well, for my piece of mind, perhaps the time is approaching. There is now evidence, still genetic evidence, suggesting that parental influence might indeed be functioning in the fashion I describe above. From You Are Shaped by the Genes You Inherit. And Maybe by Those You Don’t. by Carl Zimmer.
Dr. Kong wondered if other researchers had missed something very important. “It suddenly occurred to me that part of this effect could be coming through the parents,” he said. “And then I got obsessed with the idea.”

Children, after all, get their genes from their parents. It was possible, Dr. Kong reasoned, that genes could influence how far children got through school by influencing their parents’ behavior rather than the actions of the children themselves.

Dr. Kong was well placed to test that idea. DeCode has genetic records for many of the island’s 338,349 residents, including many pairs of parents and children. And among the questions that DeCode had asked its subjects was how many years of school they completed.

In the new study, Dr. Kong and his colleagues used a new method to measure the influence of genes on education. They didn’t inspect individual variants to see if each clearly had an impact; instead, they added up the influence of hundreds of thousands of variants in people’s DNA, even if they had a very weak influence at best.

The researchers compared 21,637 Icelanders to their parents. The parents, of course, passed down one copy of each of their genes to their children. Some of these might be related to educational attainment, and some not.

But Dr. Kong and his colleagues focused their attention on variants carried by parents but not passed to their children. These variants, the researchers found, predicted how long the children stayed in school — even though the children had not inherited them.

Any single variant in the parents had a minuscule effect on the children’s education. But combined, the researchers found, the untransmitted genes had a significant impact. Their combined effect was about 30 percent as big as that of the genes that the children actually inherited.

Animal researchers have amassed a wealth of evidence showing that animals are influenced not just by their own genes but by the genes of their parents. Credit Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald
“The direct genetic effect is quite a bit smaller than what people thought,” said Dr. Kong, who now a professor at the University of Oxford.

How can that be? Dr. Kong speculated that the genes carried by parents influence the environment in which their children grow up. “Variants that have to do with planning with the future could have the biggest effect on nurturing,” he said.

Dr. Harden expected that genetic nurture would turn out to be a very complex phenomenon. “My intuition is that it’s not any one thing, but a constellation of things,” she said.
We'll see. I certainly would like to see parental actions reassume their importance in child life outcomes. Genes are important. Non-shared environment is important. Shared environment (parents) now are back in the game.

Effective communication is an effortful but splendid thing

This is kind of an intriguing case study in communication and rationality. Kicking off the case is this tweet from Emma Hart.

Glanced at, it seems at the surface to be a plausible hypothesis. Not just plausible but a reasonable assertion. It would be easy to mentally nod the head and pass on to the next tweet, link, article in search of more interesting information - things that are substantive, true and consequential. But Hart gets pushback to her plausible assertion.

Pluckrose also seems, on the surface, to have a plausible hypothesis. Not just plausible but a reasonable assertion.

It's on. A dialectical discourse. These seemingly correct but contradictory assertions call for resolution primarily because they both seem true and yet cannot both be true. Or can they?

When you actually engage with Hart's proposition, you immediately see an issue that was easily overlooked. The tweet is cast in the identity language of the left: Gender, Class, Race, Orientation. Seen from that perspective, you can immediately see this as simply a tweet, not to explore insight and truth, but as an exercise in advancing an ideology.

This brings home how necessary is context towards understanding communication. Where is the person coming from? What are they trying to say? What are the priors they carry that underpin the logic of their argument? What are their motives? These are useful things to know if you want to attack their argument, either rhetorically or logically. But they are also useful things to know in order to understand exactly what is the argument they are making in the first place. In this instance Emma Hart describes herself as:
Slutty boozy tattooed kinky liberal freelancer. Suburban cooking gardening solo mother. Author of The Isis Knot. Owner of the worst cat in the world.
And apparently, The Isis Knot is not a published book. It is a story she has written which is online but not formally published.

Nothing in that self-description which is necessary to know but it is suggestive to some degree about how she sees herself and sees the world.

Now to her argument.
I have this theory that cycling is as close as a middle-class straight white guy can get to understanding Being Female. People have a reckless disregard for your safety, you have to treat everyone like they might hurt you, and if you do get hurt people will blame you for existing
Recast it into a proposition form in order to make the priors more explicit.
Women are always in constant danger from everyone else and will be blamed by everyone else if they suffer injury at the hands of men. The only time men experience a similar level of danger and fear is when they are bicycling. Bicyclists are in constant danger from all drivers and if they are injured, they will be blamed.
Hart's Version One seems entirely plausible as an insight. Version Two, with the priors made explicit, seems reasonably insane on empirical grounds. She assumes all women are always in constant terror, mostly from the actions of men. Does that sound plausible? Is that what most women feel?

Men suffer disproportionately greater, indeed multiples greater, than women from murder, aggravated assault, workplace accidental death, workplace injury, general morbidity, suicide, drug overdose deaths, etc. This is what Pluckrose is getting at with
I'm so much more likely to have my safety considered than men are & much less likely to get hurt or blamed for being hurt.
Indeed, men live lives at far greater risk than women. Pluckrose also alludes ("have my safety considered") to the mainstream cultural default position in the anglophone that the Birkenhead Drill is the operative response when women are in danger. Not always honored in action but usually aspired to.

Hart's apparently reasonable and plausible hypothesis suddenly becomes a revealing assertion without any support. Her argument is null despite seeming imminently sensible.

The case illustrates the importance of competition and free speech and careful attention to the details and context of how we communicate. It would be so easy to accept Hart's ideological proposition as obviously true if not for the pushback from empirical rationalists.

Caroline McCarthy's response to Hart is interesting and suggests a rich insight that is not developed.

Separate from empirical evidence there is the clash of worldviews. Hart sees women as victims of a violent and oppressive patriarchy (it seems reasonable to infer) whereas McCarthy takes the Classical Liberal position that might be characterized as:
I am an individual who might be constrained, but is not defined, by the realities of the world. I will not live in fear but in confidence in myself.
I agree. Hart's ideology casts her into a state of victimhood which is not a healthy position. But the interesting, and unexplored, insight is that all individuals have different risk profiles, regardless of how they internalize those risks. Rather than looking to victimhood, which focuses on creating guilt as a means of obtaining power, perhaps the more productive approach is looking at risk profiles as a means of lowering those risks. I suspect that consideration of risk profiles would cast a dramatically different light on how politics and policies are seen.

I come back to the original point. What this exchange between Hart, Pluckrose and MacCarthy highlights is:
How easy it is to be deceived by plausible propositions when not investing the effort to understand the priors and the evidence.

How necessary it is to have free speech and competition in order to not allow ourselves to be deceived.

How critical it is to confront the ideology of victimhood with the confidence of individual rights and responsibilities.
Thank you to Pluckrose and McCarthy for counterbalancing Hart's misdirection with revealing pushback.

The Rainy Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Rainy Day
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Written at the old home in Portland
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,

And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,

And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Monday, January 29, 2018

We never see the sun but shorn of his beams

From Apocalypse Then by Stephanie Pain.
“So long in a country not subject to fogs, we have been cover’d with one of the thickest I remember. We never see the sun but shorn of his beams, the trees are scarce discernible at a mile’s distance, he sets with the face of a red hot salamander and rises with the same complexion.” When English poet William Cowper penned these words to his friend John Newton on 29 June 1783, an unwholesome haze had been hanging over England for more than a week, inducing peculiar atmospheric effects. “Some fear to go to bed, expecting an Earthquake,” he wrote. “Some declare that he [the sun] neither rises nor sets where he did, and assert with great confidence that the day of Judgement is at hand.” By September, it looked as if their fears might be justified. On 7 September, Cowper wrote to the rector of Stock in Essex: “Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country, that farmers have with difficulty gathered in their harvest, the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work and many die.”

In Europe they called 1783 the Year of Awe. So many strange things happened: earthquakes rocked Calabria, volcanoes erupted in Iceland and Italy, and the weather was odd too. The summer was one of the hottest ever recorded and a persistent haze cloaked most of the continent. At sunset, the skies took on spectacular colours and at night the moon was blood-red. July brought calamitous thunderstorms. And after the torrid summer came a winter so deadly cold that travellers froze to death by the roadside. If these weren’t signs of impending Armageddon, what were they?

French naturalist Mourgue de Montredon was the first to suggest a less apocalyptic explanation, at least for the weird weather and vile fog. He was sure it was no coincidence that they came so soon after a great volcanic eruption in Iceland. On 8 June, the Laki fissure – now a 25-kilometre crack in the Earth’s crust in southern Iceland – began spewing lava from dozens of vents along its length. It was one of the biggest eruptions in recorded history. In the months that followed, some 10,000 Icelanders died, a quarter of the population. But, as Montredon suspected, Laki’s malign influence stretched much further afield.

There were 10 major eruptions in the first few months. Fiery fountains of lava shot as much as 1.5 kilometres into the air, accompanied by towering pillars of ash and gas that reached as high as 13 kilometres. By the time the eruption stopped the following February, it had pumped out almost 15 cubic kilometres of lava, 122 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and millions more tonnes of chlorine and fluorine. In Iceland, the big killer was fluorine, which poisoned crops, livestock and people. Many of those who survived the immediate aftermath later died of fluorosis or starved in the famine that followed. But for the rest of Europe, it was the vast outpouring of sulphur dioxide that spelled trouble.

For the first six weeks of the eruption, Laki sent 1.7 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide a day into the upper reaches of the troposphere and lower stratosphere, where it was quickly converted into a sulphuric acid aerosol and swept away on the westerly jet stream towards Europe. A stable area of high pressure over the continent – usually the bringer of fine, summer weather – helped to draw the acid down towards the ground, creating a persistent fog. During July, another 33 million tonnes of the gas ended up in the jet stream.

Across Europe, people complained of the stifling heat and the dry fog that stank of sulphur, jotting down their observations in letters and diaries. Some mentioned headaches, burning eyes, tingling lips and “sickness of the throat”. Many had breathing difficulties. The grave diggers noticed something too: summer was usually their slackest time – but not this year.

The “great dry fog” arrived in England and France within a week of the eruption. Soon it stretched all the way from Scandinavia to North Africa and stayed there for most of June, July and August. This was seriously dangerous air pollution on a massive scale, says John Grattan, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. And the timing could not have been worse. Combined with the hot summer weather, it was lethal. New studies of burial records from England and France suggest that Laki’s final toll may have been many tens of thousands.

Exhaustible charm

From Punch.

Click to enlarge.

Conversation - Sky and Earth by Charles Sheeler

Conversation - Sky and Earth by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965).

Click to enlarge.

Fresh language old and new (tactically incompetent salmon)

So much of public writing is tired. Not bad, just tired. Fowler, Orwell, and others counsel to use language creatively, to cast aside the crutch of cliches, tropes, and other banalities. Easier said than done.

When writing a piece with that goal in mind it slows you down to a crawl. Easier by far to to simply let the thought roll out, touch it up for repetitions, grammatical errors, misspellings, and then send it into the internet storm. Given the financial troubles of media companies, there are ever fewer editors to goad writers into freshening up their work original thinking and phrasing.

Or so it seems to me.

Yet there are some twitches of originality. In the past year or two, I keep coming across an arresting word play or sentence construction which give hope for refreshing writing. No idea whether this perceived trend is indeed real, much less why it might be happening. But I am hoping it is real.

This is brought to mind while reading a review of a new collection of H.L. Mencken essays. 'My Plan Is to Let People Do Whatever They Please' The daily newspaper columns of H.L. Mencken review by Bill Kauffman. Now, it is almost impossible to douse oneself with Mencken and not come away with a new appreciation of language and communication. The man was a word machine, thousands of words a week over decades. He held his audience not with lazy writing and a lattice of cliches. He courted words and constructed phrases not heard before or since. His love of language extended to three hefty volumes of The American Language.

It is indisputable that Mencken is now a controversial figure. His quick mind and vivid language dealt with all sorts of views entirely alien, not to say unacceptable, to modern ears. It is easy to pick out classism, racism, authoritarianism, and anti-semitic elements in his thinking. And yet he does not fit easily into any modern category. He opposed American involvement in foreign wars. He opposed lynching. He advocated reason and science. He objected to segregation. He sponsored talented African American writers. His own definition of theology reflects the difficulty of categorizing his body of thought - "Theology: An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing."

Actually, that's a pretty good description of much of our modern political reporting an discourse - explaining the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.

And while he can seem a man of antediluvian views, many of his excessive battles reflected early jousts with issues prevalent today. One of his first books was Men Versus the Man: A Correspondence Between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H. L. Mencken, Individualist.
There is no irony in the fact that H.L. Mencken is a tall figure in the history of letters, and Robert Rives La Monte is wholly forgotten. La Monte, who worked at the Baltimore News as well as being an editor for the International Socialist Review, was a true believer in the promise of Socialism. Here he writes six letters trying to convince H.L. Mencken to reject his selfish ways and become a comrade in the revolution, to usher in a perfect world of total equality and universal brotherhood.

Mencken, long time writer for the Baltimore Sun, editor of The American Mercury, and prolific author and essayist, was the absolute worst choice of target for an evangelist of the common man. There have been few who were as openly resolved to a robust Nietzschean individualism. And so, in one of the turn of the last centuries greatest “flame wars,” we have the Bard of Baltimore’s six responses to those appeals.

The battle of the “collective good” versus “individual liberty” still rages in pitched battles. La Monte’s voice is rightfully now just one of many faceless advocates of class-warfare, and Mencken’s personality survives as the greatest advocate of social Darwinism and thus ultimately Mencken’s own views.
We don't call them socialists or Marxists any more, we call them social justice warriors, postmodernists, activists. But the spirit of authoritarian collectivism stalks the land clashing with American notions of freedom, liberty, individualism, consent of the governed and rule of law.

I find it hard to read Mencken in bulk but an essay or two a month can serve as an intellectual cold shower - not comfortable but invigorating. He forces the reader to be clearer in their own ideas and arguments. Strong language, striking thought, fresh words. He challenges from beyond the grave.

Kauffman begins his review:
Oh, that H.L. Mencken were alive today!

You don't hear that wistful resurrectionary sentiment voiced much anymore. A modern newspaper columnist writing in Mencken's gleeful style, with its joyful savagery, its jocose sesquipedalianism, its sheer delight in the American language, would be met with astonished horror on the order of Henry James watching a Sam Kinison video or Robby Mook meeting a man who owns a pickup truck. (I should warn you that one cannot write about Mencken without aping him, however clumsily.)

The longtime Baltimore Evening Sun columnist, American Mercury editor, and rumbustiously splenetic critic, who graced this orb from 1880 to 1956, would not be published in any major newspaper today. The reasons he foresaw over a century ago, when he decried the "cheap bullying and cheaper moralizing" whose purpose was the extirpation, the annihilation, of anything resembling a robust exchange of ideas. Two beliefs puffed up the righteous censor, according to Mencken: first, "that any man who dissents from the prevailing platitudes is a hireling of the devil," and second, "that he should be silenced and destroyed forthwith. Down with free speech; up with the uplift!"
"Rumbustiously splenetic critic" - that was what caught my eye.

Among modern writers, the only one I am aware of who takes such joy in fresh language is Kurt Schlichter, trial Lawyer/Partner, Army Colonel (Retired), polemicist and famous for "being direct on Twitter." From recent columns:
The Senate GOP Sissy Caucus of sanctimonious twits


Here’s the thing – most of Trump supporters aren’t takers – they’re makers. They’re the people the government flunkies come to with their palms up whenever some bureaucrat wants to spend a zillion bucks studying LGBT issues among Antarctic penguins or funding the NPR’s X-rated reenactments of the Nativity.


Yeah, that the sexes are different is totally a thing no matter what your ponytailed grad student TA at Oberlin told you.


Here’s what he saw – a girl ditches her Emmy party date to hit on him, she flirts over their respective smartphones, he asks her out, she comes over to his place, drinks, goes to dinner, drinks, goes back to his place, drinks, gets naked and plays President Bill n’ the Naughty Intern, then leaves.


ISIS is dead - rest in pieces, you Seventh Century pederast cowards.


Just a couple weeks ago, the Dems were giddy about how they were totally going to ride a tsunami into the midterms and take back the House and maybe even the Senate. The ballot preference numbers for the GOP were uglier than an unshaven Womyn’s Studies professor in a V-hat.


So, up until their inevitable humiliating capitulation, the Dems were stuck swimming upstream against the current of prosperity – they are the tactically incompetent salmon of American politics – when they had a brainstorm. Even as they valiantly raged against Trump’s success, they managed to find a way to fail even more hilariously.


Sure, window-licking scold Nancy Pelosi thought it was a great idea – blue America has some very different ideas of what’s a good idea than Normal America.


With their sorta-Republican co-conspirators Sailor Suit Lindsey Graham and Jeff “18% Approval” Flake, they insisted that the GOP alienate its own base in order to swell the Democrats’ base.


But they were mightily miffed when Trump refused to take the worst deal since Burt Reynolds convinced Ned Beatty to trade places with him in Jon Voight’s canoe.
Window-licking scold, Sailor Suit Lindsey Graham, Bill n' the Naughty Intern? Where does he get these phrases? It doesn't matter. They are fresh and can be amusing. And clear; you are left in no doubt as to his position.

Like Mencken, Schlichter can be on the fringe of polite society. In fact, I suspect he happily has a permanent bivouac there. But agree with him or not, he commands the language like a regiment, taking it places we haven't seen before. Wish we had more writers with his grasp of creative communication.

Fable XLIX: The Man and the Flea by John Gay

Fable XLIX: The Man and the Flea
by John Gay

Whether on earth, in air, or main,
Sure ev'ry thing alive is vain!
Does not the hawk all fowls survey,
As destin'd only for his prey?
And do not tyrants, prouder things,
Think men were born for slaves to kings?
When the crab views the pearly strands,
Or Tagus bright with golden sands,
Or crawls beside the coral grove,
And hears the ocean roll above,
"Nature is too profuse," says he,
"Who gave all these to pleasure me!"
When bord'ring pinks and roses bloom,
And ev'ry garden breathes perfume,
When peaches glow with sunny dyes
Like Laura's cheek when blushes rise,
When with huge figs the branches bend,
When clusters from the vine depend,
The snail looks round on flow'r and tree,
And cries, "All these were made for me!"

"What dignity's in human nature,"
Says Man, the most conceited creature,
As from a cliff he cast his eye,
And view'd the sea and arched sky!
The sun was sunk beneath the main,
The moon and all the starry train
Hung the vast vault of heav'n. The Man
His contemplation thus began:
"When I behold this glorious show,
And the side watry world below,
The scaly people of the main,
The beasts that range the wood or plain,
The wing'd inhabitants of air,
The day, the night, the various year,
And know all these by heav'n design'd
As gifts to pleasure human kind,
I cannot raise my worth too high;

Of what vast consequence am I!"
"Not of th'importance you suppose,"
Replies a Flea upon his nose;
"Be humble; learn thyself to scan;
Know, pride was never made for Man.
'Tis vanity that swells thy mind.
What, heav'n and earth for thee design'd!
For thee! made only for our need,
That more important Fleas might feed."

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In the end, it is really only your old comrades who salute you

From Our modest war heroes may be forgotten by the state - but not by the Telegraph by Stephen Glover.

Glover describes the art of obituaries in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph and how they have made a particular point of drawing attention to the deaths of those who served in World War II. The whole piece is worth reading.

Emphasis added.
Sometimes I read such pieces with an aching heart, and always in a state of awe. I love the Telegraph for caring about this vanishing race of men who served Britain when she was still a great power. Of course, it cannot write about all of them. Let me mention my father-in-law, Peter Montague, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 88. Actually I wrote about him in The Spectator Christmas edition of 1996. He was a young officer in the Honourable Artillery Company seconded to the 2nd Indian Field Regiment who, having been trained in Arctic warfare, found himself in the North African desert at the beginning of 1942. On 27 May 1942 his regiment was part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade which engaged the Germans (who had first been mistaken for South Africans!) at the Battle of Bir Hacheim. Six of the regiment’s officers were killed and a further 12 taken prisoner, Peter among them, his face burnt by an exploding petrol tank. He spent the rest of the war in a series of Italian and German prisoner-of-war camps from which he tried, without success, to escape.

I mentioned in that Christmas piece how officers who had served in the 2nd Indian Field Regiment would meet every year in an Indian restaurant in London. After Indian independence in 1947, the regiment was incorporated into the Indian army. It has no premises of its own in this country, nor any regimental memorabilia, and its annual lunches in that dingy restaurant, some of which I was privileged to attend, have been the only commemoration of its wartime role. Even in 1996 time had reduced the numbers to 10 or 11. Now the survivors have dwindled to perhaps two or three, and the lunches have been stopped.

They taught me that, in the end, it is really only your old comrades who salute you — and perhaps the Daily Telegraph. Certainly you should not depend on the gratitude or continuing interest of the state. A few years ago Peter went to look up his war records in some government archive and found that according to officialdom he had not existed. Happily the Honourable Artillery Company has a better memory.

When I read these obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, I think how very young these old men were then, and how frightened, despite their courage, they must sometimes have been. Those of us who have never been in a battle can never know what it is really like. As he lay delirious on the verge of death, Peter was back in the desert of more than 60 years ago, shouting orders and warnings, gabbling about Germans, and sometimes striking the air. This is the world that is slipping from us. Every week, every day still, these old men are dying, but the source is inexorably diminishing. There will be fewer and fewer such obits in the Telegraph. And one day, not so very far away, there will be none at all.

There is no reciprocity

Alice Thomas Ellis was a columnist for The Spectator. Or rather, she was a novelist who also wrote a column for the Spectator. That is where I am familiar with her writings.

Going through some old notes, I came across this quote from her.
There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don't love anyone.
We want everything to be balanced and good. And sometimes that is what we achieve through will and effort. But the desire for reciprocity does not spring from actual observed reciprocity.

Unanticipated consequences

From Brimstone and bicycles by Mick Hamer, New Scientist, 29 January, 2005.
On 5 April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia began to grumble. A week later the volcano blew its top in a spectacular eruption that went on until July. It was the biggest eruption in recorded history, killing around 92,000 people and ejecting so much ash into the atmosphere that average global temperatures dipped by 3 °C. In the northern hemisphere 1816 became known as the year without a summer. New England had blizzards in July and crops failed. Europe was hit just as badly.

On holiday by Lake Geneva the 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her husband Percy were trapped in Lord Byron’s house by constant rain. To divert his guests Byron suggested a competition to write a ghost story. The result was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Across the border in the German state of Baden the soaring price of oats prompted the 32-year-old Karl Drais to invent a replacement

Shaking hands

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Pink House, East Cliff, West Bay (2014) by David Inshaw

Pink House, East Cliff, West Bay (2014) by David Inshaw.

Click to enlarge.

Our Song by Art Pepper

Our Song by Art Pepper (from the album Winter Moon, 1980)

Double click to enlarge.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Different strokes

From Punch.

Click to enlarge.

Travel Poster: Great Western Railway Village in Somerset by Frank Newbould

Click to enlarge.

A Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead

I finished A Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray. I recommend it for young adults beginning their careers.

Much like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, it is not preachy or values laden. It is merely a distillation of common-sense practices which, if undertaken with diligence, is tremendously beneficial. Omitted, and all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.

As it were.

He is the enforcer of the law upon himself

From Laws and Manners by the Right Honorable Lord Moulton, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1924.

A prescient piece. Many of the episodes of anger and fitfulness in recent years has, I think, been grounded in the narcissism of small differences. The law reaches only so far and then cedes to custom and manners. The law depends on a general shared confidence in its appropriateness and its competence. When the law is seen to be bad, or unenforced, or enforced in a selective fashion, the whole exercise of governance is undermined.

And the bar is pretty low. For our most serious crime, murder, the clearance and conviction rates are shockingly low. Only 64% or murderers are identified in the first place. Down from 90% fifty years ago. And of those 64% where the murderer is identified, only 66% are convicted. So only 42% of all murders lead to a conviction. The clearance rates plunge from there (rape, assault, theft, etc.)

While we have a hard time identifying perpetrators and an even harder time convicting them, very fortunately, crime has been dropping over the past three decades, perhaps counteracting the concern about the law's effectiveness.

The point of Moulton's essay is that there is a real limit for government to enforce the law. And yet the law itself has a limited purview. It has not historically extended to things such as good manners.

My concern about social justice postmodernists is that they represent a very real threat to the integrity and viability of government. Certainly their first order threat is to our natural and constitutional rights such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Across the western world, governments are conceding to social justice advocates insisting that people should be convicted for their speech and for their religious beliefs.

It is very dangerous when government is seen to not be competent in enforcing the laws that everyone agrees to. It is worse when government is seen to be selectively enforcing laws. And it is worst when government is seen to be trying to enforce laws that are unconstitutional and undermining of human rights (speech).

By trying to force the law to reach into the field of manners, social justice postmodernists have been extremely effective in undermining the freedom of western civilization.

This gap between formal law and shared manners is the topic of Moulton's essay.
In order to explain this extraordinary title I must ask you to follow me in examining the three great domains of Human Action. First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom. But between these two there is a third large and important domain in which there rules neither Positive Law nor Absolute Freedom. In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would. The degree of this sense of a lack of complete freedom in this domain varies in every case. It grades from a consciousness of a Duty nearly as strong as Positive Law, to a feeling that the matter is all but a question of personal choice. Some might wish to parcel out this domain into separate countries, calling one, for instance, the domain of Duty, another the domain of Public Spirit, another the domain of Good Form; but I prefer to look at it as all one domain, for it has one and the same characteristic throughout — it is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.


The infinite variety of circumstances surrounding the individual and rightly influencing his action make it impossible to subject him in all things to rules rigidly prescribed and duly enforced. Thus there was wisely left the intermediate domain which, so far as Positive Law is concerned, is a land of freedom of action, but in which the individual should feel that he was not wholly free. This country which lies between Law and Free Choice I always think of as the domain of Manners. To me, Manners in this broad sense signifies the doing that which you should do although you are not obliged to do it. I do not wish to call it Duty, for that is too narrow to describe it, nor would I call it Morals for the same reason. It might include both, but it extends beyond them. It covers all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.

All these three domains are essential to the properly organized life of the individual, and one must be on one’s guard against thinking that any of them can safely be encroached upon. That Law must exist needs no argument. But, on the other hand, the domain of Free Choice should be dear to all. This is where spontaneity, originality, and energy are born. The great movements which make the history of a country start there. It covers a precious land where the actions of men are not only such as they choose, but have a right to claim freedom even from criticism. Men must keep safely guarded this right to follow the bent of their nature in proper cases and act as they would without anyone having the right to utter a word of dictation or command. This country forms the other frontier of the domain of Manners and delimits it on the side farthest away from that of Positive Law.


In the changes that are taking place in the world around us, one of those which is fraught with grave peril is the discredit into which this idea of the middle land is falling.


But in form the power of a Government has no restrictions. It has the power to do everything, and too often it forgets that this limitless power does not leave the scope of its legislation a matter of absolute choice on its part, but a choice fettered by a duty to act according to the trust reposed in it, and to abstain from legislating in matters where legislation is not truly within its province. And what is true as to the scope of legislation is also true to a great extent as to the nature of that legislation. But there is a widespread tendency to regard the fact that they can do a thing as meaning that they may do it. There can be no more fatal error than this. Between ‘can do’ and ‘may do’ ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible. It is this confusion between ‘can do’ and ‘may do’ which makes me fear at times lest in the future the worst tyranny will be found in democracies.


Now I can tell you why I chose the title ‘Law and Manners.’ It must be evident to you that Manners must include all things which a man should impose upon himself, from duty to good taste. I have borne in mind the great motto of William of Wykeham — Manners makyth Man. It is in this sense — loyalty to the rule of Obedience to the Unenforceable, throughout the whole realm of personal action — that we should use the word ‘Manners’ if we would truly say that ‘Manners makyth Man.’
With internet mobs and social media vigilantes, all seeking extrajudicial social justice, I fear postmodernists are advancing authoritarianism and totalitarianism by attempting to legislate good manners and thereby permanently unermining the authority of law.

After Many Days by Edwin Osgood Grover

After Many Days
by Edwin Osgood Grover

Back in the dear old village,
Again in the sleepy town.
O! that our hearts might pillage
The pleasures that there o'er-drown
The soul till it knows no sorrow:
O! could our breasts but borrow
The quiet of cap and gown.

O! for the tears and the laughter
We mingled in days that are dead.
Joy that comes no more after;
Tears that never are shed.
Then living was loving and pleasure,
And we drank it deep without measure,
And the sob of our sorrow soon fled.

We are back in the peaceful quiet,
Where we dreamed four years away;
Once more where Nature runs riot,
And the pleasures of youth hold sway.
O! take us and sing us to slumber
As of old, with delights without number,
Which scatter your joyous way.

Song: Summer Has Come Without the Rose by A.W.E. O'Shaughnessy

Song: Summer Has Come Without the Rose
by A.W.E. O'Shaughnessy

HAS summer come without the rose,
Or left the bird behind?
Is the blue changed above thee,
O world! or am I blind?
Will you change every flower that grows,
Or only change this spot,
Where she who said, I love thee,
Now says, I love thee not?

The skies seemed true above thee,
The rose true on the tree;
The bird seemed true the summer through,
But all proved false to me.

Clint Eastwood by Robyn Adele Anderson

Clint Eastwood by Robyn Adele Anderson (cover)

Double click to enlarge.

Clint Eastwood
by Robyn Adele Anderson

I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
The future is coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on

[Verse 1]
Finally, someone let me out of my cage
Now, time for me is nothing, ‘cause I'm counting no age
Now I couldn't be there, now you shouldn't be scared
I'm good at repairs
And I'm under each snare
Bet you didn't think, so I command you to
Panoramic view
Look, I'll make it all manageable
Pick and choose, sit and lose, all you different crews
Chicks and dudes, who you think is really kicking tunes?
Picture you getting down in a picture tube
Like you lit the fuse, you think it's fictional
Mystical? Maybe, spiritual hero who appears in you when you're too crazy
Lifeless to those, the definition for what life is
Priceless to you because I put you on the high shit
You like it? Gun smokin'
Righteous with one toke
Psychic among those, possess you with one go

I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
And I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
And I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
It's coming on
My future is coming on
It's coming on

[Verse 2]
The essence, the basics, without it, you make it
Allow me to make this, childlike in nature
Rhythm, you have it or you don't, it's a fallacy
It's in 'em, every sprouting tree, every child of peace
You see with your eyes
I see destruction and demise, corruption in disguise
From this fucking enterprise, I'm sucked into your lies
Through Russel, not from his muscles
Percussion he provides, as the guide
Y'all can see me now, ‘cause you don't see with your eye
You perceive with your mind; that's the inner
So I'mma stick around with Russ and be a mentor
Bust a few rhymes so motherfuckers remember
Where the thought is, I brought all this
So you can survive when law is lawless
Feelings, sensations that you thought was dead
No squealing, remember
It's all in your head

I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I'm useless, but not for long
The future is coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
My future is coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on
It's coming on, it's coming on

Friday, January 26, 2018

Gunga Din and the DAR

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

I got the data from . . .

A great example of cognitive pollution.

Summer Porch, 2012 by Sally Storch

Summer Porch, 2012 by Sally Storch.

Click to enlarge.

Measurement of journalistic performance

Hmm. That's interesting. I came across the Society of Professional Journalists which has been around since 1909. The fact of its existence is not what is so interesting, it is their code of ethics.

I am a management consultant and therefore the capacity to measure and monitor is a central function of any process. If you can't measure it, you can't improve it.

There is nothing especially controversial about their code of ethics which is organized around four key principles: 1) Seek truth and report it, 2) Minimize harm, 3) Act independently, and 4) Be accountable.

Great principles. Under each, they have an elaboration of what each means. It is these elements which I find interesting because they create the opportunity for assessing performance. How well does a newspaper or journalist perform on each of these desirable attributes? It raises interesting questions. In a well run enterprise, your performance measures drive performance, behavior, incentives, etc. Do media companies use this Code of Ethics as part of their performance reviews for journalists or are these simply statements of virtue with no real world impact?

What I did was to turn the code of ethics into a checklist. I kept the performance assessment simple (Low, Medium, High). I then did an eyeball check of half a dozen New York Times news articles against these stated standards. The results were revealing. The biggest issue (on too small a sample) was sources. The more striking the news report, the fewer the named sources. In three of the articles there were no named sources. Balance was another major issue - reporting from one side or viewpoint only was the norm. Failing to distinguish reporting from advocacy was also common. On and on. The Low to High continuum was flawed. I needed a bottom category when the ethic was not adhered to at all.

Very revealing exercise. It would be interesting to run this exercise on a few hundred randomly selected articles across multiple news enterprises and with a more granular and defined performance scale. It would manifest Michael Crichton's observation about the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Here are the four sheets. Click to enlarge.

Centralized collaborative teams are more susceptible to believing claims which are false than are decentralized more competitive teams

From Centralized “big science” communities more likely generate non-replicable results by Valentin Danchev, Andrey Rzhetsky, and James A. Evans. From the abstract.
Growing concern that most published results, including those widely agreed upon, may be false are rarely examined against rapidly expanding research production. Replications have only occurred on small scales due to prohibitive expense and limited professional incentive. We introduce a novel, high-throughput replication strategy aligning 51,292 published claims about drug-gene interactions with high-throughput experiments performed through the NIH LINCS L1000 program. We show (1) that unique claims replicate 19% more frequently than at random, while those widely agreed upon replicate 45% more frequently, manifesting collective correction mechanisms in science; but (2) centralized scientific communities perpetuate claims that are less likely to replicate even if widely agreed upon, demonstrating how centralized, overlapping collaborations weaken collective understanding. Decentralized research communities involve more independent teams and use more diverse methodologies, generating the most robust, replicable results. Our findings highlight the importance of science policies that foster decentralized collaboration to promote robust scientific advance.
That is kind of opaque. The closing discussion is marginally more enlightening.
Extensive (22) and often overlapping scientific collaboration (16), along with cumulative advantage processes that create central, star scientists (19), produce centralized “big science” communities with dense methodological and intellectual dependencies. Such communities tend to publish fragile findings. Our research points to the importance of science policies that foster competition and decentralized collaboration to promote robust and replicable scientific advance. Our analysis demonstrates the utility of large-scale experiments coupled with enriched article content and metadata to diagnose the replicability of published research. Our findings suggest a calculus for evaluating the system-level trade-off between investments in robust, replicable knowledge, which comes at the price of larger, but weaker, preliminary insight.
If I am reading the study correctly, what they are saying is that if you divide findings between unique claims (different from the mainstream) and received wisdom (claims consistent with the consensus of the community), the unique claims are replicated at half the rate of the received wisdom claims. But in either category (unique claims versus received wisdom) the majority (at least 55%) of claims fail to replicate.

Most of what we know is wrong, and the more out of the mainstream our claims, the more likely it is to be wrong.

Their second finding is the one I am interested in. While the above is true, there is a second way of looking at the issue. Which groups are more susceptible to false knowledge, large, centralized, collaborative teams or smaller, decentralized, competitive teams? What they find is that centralized collaborative teams are more susceptible to believing claims which are false than are decentralized more competitive teams.

That is interesting and entirely consistent with classical liberal worldview (Locke, Smith, Mills, Hume, Hayek, etc.). The fact that centralized, collaborative research groups are more susceptible to group think and false knowledge is also entirely consistent with modern economic and political experience.

These findings also suggest an interesting insight to the challenge of fake news (false knowledge) in complex, modern, dynamic societies.

It is a common, and not unfounded, claim that news media are biased. This claim is usually made in political terms (Democrats versus Republicans or left versus right) and that is an interesting to a degree. But I have made the point frequently in earlier posts that I think there is something different going on which drives the perceived partisan split. I have focused on the homogenization of the media industry. The great bulk of reporters are now concentrated in a small number of cities - New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles.

Sub offices and stringers in other locations, sure, but not where any decisions are made. These are all high cost, high density, high inequality, Democratic majority cities. Combine that with all reporters and editors now being highly compensated (upper middle class) and all with college and or advanced degrees, and it is easy to see that they live in a world that is distinctly different from that of most Americans. It is easy to see why there is a large divide between the world as seen by an average American and the world as seen by journalists in dense, expensive, unequal, mass transit enabled, highly unequal, democrat dominated cities. They simply live in two different worlds.

There is another factor which I have mentioned in the past but which this research would seem to weight more heavily. In addition to all the above observations being true, it is also the case that the news collection and distribution industry is now far more concentrated than in the past. Five major media organizations account for 80% or more of the media.

Danchev, Rzhetsky, and Evans find that centralized, collaborative, interdependent communities perpetuate incorrect beliefs to a greater extent than do independent, decentralized, competitive organizations. Perhaps the fact that news media is now concentrated in three cities, among five companies, with experientially homogenous employees who work collaboratively with one another, and with shared worldviews might be the greater explanation for why they are so prone to seize on and exaggerate information which is inaccurate and/or untrue. Perhaps it is not so much an issue of partisan bias (an incidental outcome) but at core simply a product of an underlying system dynamic.

Hugely speculative but an interesting implication.

The Lost Forest by Aline Kilmer

The Lost Forest
by Aline Kilmer

I WALKED with my mother
Where the tall trees grow,
And she showed me tiny tables
Where the elves sit in a row,
And the bells that ring to call them
When the night winds blow.

There were small frosted toadstools,
And little cups of wine,
And velvet banks to rest on
Where moss grew thick and fine,
And a smooth brown ring for dancing
Underneath a pine.

But now when I go walking
All the way is clear;
The little bells are silent
And the moss grown sere,
And I know that in the moonlight
Not an elf comes near.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Star-Splitter by Robert Frost

The Star-Splitter
by Robert Frost

You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion's having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?"
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities...

"What do you want with one of those blame things?"
I asked him well beforehand. "Don't you get one!"
"Don't call it blamed; there isn't anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight," he said.
"I'll have one if I sell my farm to buy it."
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn't move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
"The best thing that we're put here for's to see;
The strongest thing that's given us to see with's
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me."
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.
Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren't the least imposed on,
And he could wait--we'd see to him to-morrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn't take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don't cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn't do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one's gift for Christmas,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn't sentient; the house
Didn't feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn't selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for star-gazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-splitter,
Because it didn't do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It's a star-splitter if there ever was one
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
'Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We've looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night to-night
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Fascinating as an example of a profound lack of self-awareness. From Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar? by Thomas B. Edsall. Edsall is one of the more knowledgeable, sophisticated journalists of the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic party.

Whether one agrees with the argument he might be making in a column, it almost always has a useful insight and is usually rich with relevant and revealing information.

But like so many in the "intellectual" establishment, his worldview has been powerfully shaken by the inconceivable election of Trump. The quality of his columns has declined and he more and more frequently is shouting "Get off my lawn" rather than making an informed argument. The trappings of the old form are still there but gone is the rigor and insight.

You can see the rot in this most recent column. When you lead with a classic example of an informal fallacy (the false dilemma in the headline), it is a good tell that the argument might not be rigorous.

The trouble deepens in the lede paragraph.
How should we explain the fact that President Trump got away with making 2,140 false or misleading claims during his initial year in office?
That is a disturbingly fragile foundation for an argument. There is a whole philosophical debate to be had about that assumed "fact" of 2,140 false or misleading claims. Even if you accept the oddly precise 2,140 at face value, compared to what? What is the average number of false or misleading statements for the first year of earlier presidents? And of what consequence? Do all, or any, of the these false or misleading claims, in sum or in part, equate to "weapons of mass destruction" or "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor"? This 2,140 claim is stripped of definition or context. It is without meaning unless you accept it a priori as meaningful and true.

It is also a reminder of Salena Zito's insight during the campaign:
When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.
Pundits and press want to find fault with Trump's enthusiastic oratory and rhetoric. And they are right, there is conflation, and approximation, and inaccurate estimation galore. His is not airtight public policy forum-speak with tight logic and rigorous evidence. You want white paper speak, get a white paper. He speaks rhetorically. You learn more about the direction he is signaling rather than his command of the facts and figures. He might indeed have those at his finger tips but that is irrelevant when speaking rhetorically. His supporters are not wrong to take him seriously (direction) but not literally (facts and figures.)

Pundits and the establishment want Trump to adhere to their class norms and their customs of communication. The fact that he speaks rhetorically and to great effect undermines there class sense of what is right. It is not hard to see the class bigotry and disdain behind so many critical articles and opinions.

Which is ironic. Most establishment bromides are wrong. Their favored policies frequently fail disastrously. They suffer confirmation bias, interpreting everything according to their prior beliefs and not factually and dispassionately. From a logic and empirical evidence perspective, they get things as wrong as does Trump. Edsall's column is an example of this. Yes, it looks learned. Yes, there is a bandying around of sophisticated notions. But really, there is no evidence to support his thesis, simply a massive appeal to authority. It fails from both a logical/evidence based point of view as well as in terms of rhetoric.

The opening paragraph is a tautology (an argument in which the conclusion is also it's premise; an example of circular reasoning). The opening paragraph is also an example of unstated assumptions, limited scope, and confirmation bias.

Six logical fallacies in only two sentences totaling 34 words. That red flag gets bigger and redder.

Edsall then serves up a 68 paragraph long word-salad of quotations from 25 academics who are ideologically and politically opposed to Donald Trump. It is an extensive but shallow discursion into the fields of postmodernist philosophy, deconstructionism, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, comparative literature, religion, English, and political punditry. These are very smart people but it is worth noting that these are also fields in which the overwhelming majority (greater than 70%) of published research fails to replicate and/or is retracted.

Edsall's evidence is essentially a compilation from ideological opponents speaking from positions of authority in fields where most the accepted knowledge is actually untrue. That seems a pretty shaky argument. No balance, no data, no facts, no empirical evidence, just opinions from smart people in academic fields of discredited research.

This is a massive intellectual smoke screen. More artfully:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing
"And then is heard no more" - were that we were so lucky.

All this noise leads up to Edsall's overwrought conclusion.
If tribalism has begun to supplant traditional partisanship, their argument suggests, lying in politics will metastasize as traditional constraints continue to fall by the wayside.

Trump’s success, such as it is, has been to accelerate the ongoing transformation of traditional political competition into an atavistic struggle in which each side claims moral superiority and defines the opposition as evil.

These developments have been unfolding for decades, but the 2016 election was a turning point that appears to have the potential to corrupt the system beyond repair. Trump is determined to leave the destruction of democratic procedure as his legacy. Instead of granting him the title of postmodernist, let’s say instead that Trump is a nihilist who seeks to trample, to trash, to blight, to break and to burn.
There are three conclusions to this long, long argument -
The 2016 election was a turning point that appears to have the potential to corrupt the system beyond repair.

Trump is determined to leave the destruction of democratic procedure as his legacy.

Trump is a nihilist who seeks to trample, to trash, to blight, to break and to burn.
Edsall has just invested 2,655 words talking about a variety of things that have nothing to do with these conclusions. He starts with the assumption that Trump is a liar and concludes that 2016 marked the decline of our system and that Trump is intentionally destroying our system of government.

That isn't an argument. That is simply an existential scream of an establishment which sees its influence and sinecures under threat from this new agent of the citizens. I am imagining a Trump tweet on Edsall's column. I suspect it would be a one word summary of the 2,655 word essay.
A summary which I would also imagine being endorsed by 50-70% of citizens. And a summary trashed by the 0.000001% of the population who are establishment pundits and establishment insiders as lacking artfulness, sophistication, and nuance. Missing the point that he won the argument through artful rhetoric versus their earnest, but inadequate, effort to appear logical and empirical.

Quality recruiting

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Barrett's Privateers by Stan Rogers

Barrett's Privateers by Stan Rogers

Double click to enlarge.

Barrett's Privateers
by Stan Rogers

Oh, the year was 1778
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
A letter of marque came from the king
To the scummiest vessel I've ever seen
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

Oh, Elcid Barrett cried the town
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
For twenty brave men all fishermen who
Would make for him the Antelope's crew
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

The Antelope sloop was a sickening sight
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags
And the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

On the King's birthday we put to sea
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
We were 91 days to Montego Bay
Pumping like madmen all the way
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

On the 96th day we sailed again
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
When a bloody great Yankee hove in sight
With our cracked four pounders we made to fight
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

Now the Yankee lay low down with gold
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
She was broad and fat and loose in the stays
But to catch her took the Antelope two whole days
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

Then at length we stood two cables away
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
Our cracked four pounders made an awful din
But with one fat ball, the Yank stove us in
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

The Antelope shook and pitched on her side
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs
And the Main truck carried off both me legs
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers

So here I lay in my 23rd year
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
It's been 6 years since we sailed away
And I just made Halifax yesterday
God damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers