The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves some of the greatest men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigators. What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep down in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows by life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. No man of self-respect could devote himself to pathology on such terms. What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity — his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes. And yet he is one of the greatest and noblest of men. And yet he stands in the very front rank of the race.
H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 6: The Scientist”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
July 6, 2015
July 5, 2015
How much reality can you stand? John Derbyshire says it’s less than we used to be able to cope with:
T.S. Eliot’s observation that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” is surely up among the half-dozen wisest things ever said about our common nature.
There is, of course, individual variation in how much reality we can bear. I flatter myself by believing I am up toward the high end. I readily admit, however, that I have spent not insignificant portions of my life in a state of self-delusion driven by wishful thinking — a hugely underestimated force in human affairs. Some humility is in order, and not just for me.
There is group variation, too. Speaking generally, and again with much individual variation, the old can bear more reality than the young; men more than women; people in up-against-it professions like medicine or law enforcement more than those in comparatively sheltered occupations; people educated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) more than humanities majors; and so on.
I am now going to propose a half-baked theory to you.
Theory: In advanced societies, the average amount of reality people can bear has declined across the past few decades.
This, I believe, has something to do with the ever-increasing availability of screen-based entertainment (movies, TV, the internet), something to do with the decline of religion, something to do with the revolution in manners that we call “political correctness,” and something to do with the falloff in violence, as chronicled by Steven Pinker.
There are surely connections there; but which is cause, which is effect, and which mere symptom, I don’t know. That’s why the theory is half-baked.
Illustrations: As we have seen these past few days, the whole zone of “identity” is shot through with barefaced, unblushing denial of reality.
All but a very tiny proportion of human beings are biologically male (an X and a Y chromosome in the genome) or female (two X chromosomes). A person who is biologically of one sex but believes himself to be of the other is in the grip of a delusion. That is what everybody would have said 50 years ago.
Some of those who said it would have followed up with an expression of disgust; some with unkind mockery; some with sympathy and suggestions for psychiatric counseling. Well-nigh nobody would have said: “Well, if he thinks he’s a gal, then he is a gal.” Yet that is the majority view nowadays. It is a flagrant denial of reality; but if you scoff at it, you place yourself out beyond the borders of acceptable opinion.
From the recent Rolling Stone profile of Rush:
Lee has been friends with Alex Lifeson since they were nerdy teens in the Sixties; the guitarist set Lee up with Young, whom he married in 1976. Clearly, Lee has no issues with commitment, though touring strained his relationship with his family until Rush cut out European dates in the Eighties. “The worst thing you can do in marriage is to look at your partner as your wife or your husband,” says Lee. “We decided to treat each other as if we were still boyfriend and girlfriend. That subtle bit of semantics helps a lot, I think.”
Lee, born Gary Lee Weinrib, is the child of Holocaust survivors, and he traces some of his drive to his parents’ legacy. They met in a Nazi work camp in occupied Poland in around 1941, and had fallen in love by the time they were both imprisoned in Auschwitz. “They were, like, 13 years old,” Lee says over a late-night beer in a sleepy Tulsa bar, “so it was kind of surreal preteen shit. He would bribe guards to bring shoes to my mom.” As the war went on, his mother was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, and his father to Dachau.
When the Allies liberated the camps, his father set out in search of his mom. He found her at Bergen-Belsen, which had become a displaced-persons camp. They married there, and immigrated to Canada. But years of forced labor had damaged Lee’s father’s heart, and he died at age 45, when Lee was 12. Lee’s mother had to go to work, leaving her three kids in the care of their overwhelmed, elderly grandmother. “Had my dad survived,” says Lee, “I might not be sitting here talking to you — because he was a tough guy, and if he didn’t want me to do something, I may not have done it. It was a terrible blow that I lost him, but the course of my life changed because my mother couldn’t control us.”
Close to midnight, with Rush’s tour kickoff less than 24 hours away, Alex Lifeson is kneeling on a relocated couch pillow by the open window of his hotel room, exhaling pungent weed smoke into the humid Tulsa air. (If you’re in Rush and you want to get high, you do so considerately.) He breaks into a violent coughing fit. “Well, that’s the thing with this pot these days,” he says, passing the joint. “It’s so expansive in your lungs.” The streets below us are post-apocalyptically empty. “It’s busy in town tonight,” Lifeson says.
Earlier that night, over a pleasantly boozy dinner, I ask Lifeson if weed has helped him write Rush’s music. “Maybe just 80 percent of the time,” he says, roaring. “I find that smoking pot can be a really great creative agent.” (Lee quit pot in the early Eighties; Peart says, “I like marijuana, but I’m not going to be the poster child for it.”) “But when you’re in the studio and you’re playing, it’s sloppy,” Lifeson continues. “And cocaine is the worst, for everything. If you want to feel your heart pounding on your mattress at 7:00 in the morning when the birds are chirping, it’s perfect. It’s awesome. What do kids do now for drugs?”
Lifeson was a fan of Ecstasy in the early Nineties, and hadn’t heard that it’s called Molly now. “I’m glad you told me, just in case,” he jokes. “My wife is a totally nondrug person, but for some reason I talked her into it. We cranked the music and we were dancing, and then we talked for hours about deep personal stuff for what seemed like the first time, even though we’d been married for years. We were going through a bit of a difficult time in our relationship, and that opened up a lot of doors.”
While I don’t think I ever saw an episode of the British sitcom The Good Life, I’ve read a fair bit about it in passing, as it is one of the mass media touchstones used by Dominic Sandbrook in his series of hefty tomes about British life from the 60s onwards. In short, a middle-aged couple bail on their middle-class lives and try to set up a self-sufficient lifestyle on their (fully paid-off) house in the suburbs. The interaction between the couple and their still-living-the-middle-class-life next-door neighbours provides much of the humour for the show. Based on that, I must heartily agree with David Thompson’s explanation of the show:
… Tom and Barbara’s experiment in “self-sufficiency” wasn’t particularly self-sufficient. They don’t prevail in the end, not on their own terms or in accord with their stated principles, and their inability to do so is the primary source of story lines. Practically every week the couple’s survival is dependent on the neighbours’ car, the neighbours’ chequebook, the neighbours’ unpaid labour, a convoluted favour of some kind. And of course they’re dependent on the “petty” bourgeois social infrastructure maintained by all those people who haven’t adopted a similarly perilous ‘ecological’ lifestyle. The Goods’ “non-greedy alternative” to bourgeois life is only remotely possible because of their own previous bourgeois habits — a paid-off mortgage, a comfortable low-crime neighbourhood with lots of nearby greenery, and well-heeled neighbours who are forever on tap when crises loom, i.e., weekly.
To seize on The Good Life as an affirmation of eco-noodling and a “non-greedy alternative” to modern life is therefore unconvincing, to say the least. The Goods only survive, and then just barely, because of their genuinely self-supporting neighbours — the use of Jerry’s car and chequebook being a running gag throughout. And insofar as the series has a feel-good tone, it has little to do with championing ‘green’ lifestyles or “self-sufficiency.” It’s much more about the fact that, despite Tom and Barbara’s dramas, bad choices and continual mooching, and despite Margo’s imperious snobbery, on which so much of the comedy hinges, the neighbours remain friends. If anything, the terribly bourgeois Margo and Jerry are the more plausible moral heroes, given all that they have to put up with and how often they, not Tom’s principles, save the day.
… in Germany most human faults and follies sink into comparative insignificance beside the enormity of walking on the grass. Nowhere, and under no circumstances, may you at any time in Germany walk on the grass. Grass in Germany is quite a fetish. To put your foot on German grass would be as great a sacrilege as to dance a hornpipe on a Mohammedan’s praying-mat. The very dogs respect German grass; no German dog would dream of putting a paw on it. If you see a dog scampering across the grass in Germany, you may know for certain that it is the dog of some unholy foreigner. In England, when we want to keep dogs out of places, we put up wire netting, six feet high, supported by buttresses, and defended on the top by spikes. In Germany, they put a notice-board in the middle of the place, “Hunden verboten,” and a dog that has German blood in its veins looks at that notice-board and walks away. In a German park I have seen a gardener step gingerly with felt boots on to grass-plot, and removing therefrom a beetle, place it gravely but firmly on the gravel; which done, he stood sternly watching the beetle, to see that it did not try to get back on the grass; and the beetle, looking utterly ashamed of itself, walked hurriedly down the gutter, and turned up the path marked “Ausgang.”
In German parks separate roads are devoted to the different orders of the community, and no one person, at peril of liberty and fortune, may go upon another person’s road. There are special paths for “wheel-riders” and special paths for “foot-goers,” avenues for “horse-riders,” roads for people in light vehicles, and roads for people in heavy vehicles; ways for children and for “alone ladies.” That no particular route has yet been set aside for bald-headed men or “new women” has always struck me as an omission.
In the Grosse Garten in Dresden I once came across an old lady, standing, helpless and bewildered, in the centre of seven tracks. Each was guarded by a threatening notice, warning everybody off it but the person for whom it was intended.
“I am sorry to trouble you,” said the old lady, on learning I could speak English and read German, “but would you mind telling me what I am and where I have to go?”
I inspected her carefully. I came to the conclusion that she was a “grown-up” and a “foot-goer,” and pointed out her path. She looked at it, and seemed disappointed.
“But I don’t want to go down there,” she said; “mayn’t I go this way?”
“Great heavens, no, madam!” I replied. “That path is reserved for children.”
“But I wouldn’t do them any harm,” said the old lady, with a smile. She did not look the sort of old lady who would have done them any harm.
“Madam,” I replied, “if it rested with me, I would trust you down that path, though my own first-born were at the other end; but I can only inform you of the laws of this country. For you, a full-grown woman, to venture down that path is to go to certain fine, if not imprisonment. There is your path, marked plainly — Nur für Fussgänger, and if you will follow my advice, you will hasten down it; you are not allowed to stand here and hesitate.”
“It doesn’t lead a bit in the direction I want to go,” said the old lady.
“It leads in the direction you ought to want to go,” I replied, and we parted.
In the German parks there are special seats labelled, “Only for grown-ups” (Nur für Erwachsene), and the German small boy, anxious to sit down, and reading that notice, passes by, and hunts for a seat on which children are permitted to rest; and there he seats himself, careful not to touch the woodwork with his muddy boots. Imagine a seat in Regent’s or St. James’s Park labelled “Only for grown-ups!” Every child for five miles round would be trying to get on that seat, and hauling other children off who were on. As for any “grown-up,” he would never be able to get within half a mile of that seat for the crowd. The German small boy, who has accidentally sat down on such without noticing, rises with a start when his error is pointed out to him, and goes away with down-cast head, brushing to the roots of his hair with shame and regret.
Not that the German child is neglected by a paternal Government. In German parks and public gardens special places (Spielplätze) are provided for him, each one supplied with a heap of sand. There he can play to his heart’s content at making mud pies and building sand castles. To the German child a pie made of any other mud than this would appear an immoral pie. It would give to him no satisfaction: his soul would revolt against it.
“That pie,” he would say to himself, “was not, as it should have been, made of Government mud specially set apart for the purpose; it was not manufactured in the place planned and maintained by the Government for the making of mud pies. It can bring no real blessing with it; it is a lawless pie.” And until his father had paid the proper fine, and he had received his proper licking, his conscience would continue to trouble him.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
July 4, 2015
By way of American Digest, let’s all get behind the “some asshole” initiative:
Published on 1 Jul 2015
Meet the Thighmaster of urban public policy: Streetcars.
Municipal politicians all across the country have convinced themselves that this costly, clunky hardware can revitalize their flabby downtown economies.
That includes the fearless leaders of America’s capital city. The DC government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade trying to erect a streetcar line in the up-and-coming neighborhood of H Street. The project has been an epic disaster, perfectly demonstrating how ill-suited streetcars are to modern urban life.
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It’s the bitter end of the off-season in the NFL: everyone is waiting for training camps to open and there’s no football news at all (except disciplinary announcements). To help fill these empty days, Dave Rappoccio ranks all 32 NFL teams by how AMERICA they are:
Buffalo is basically Canada
Yes, they are Norsemen, but charging into villages, burning everything to the ground and ruining lives is totally American as hell.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are very AMERICA. Bald Eagles? Hell yes, slap our big ass scary national bird on it. The face on the logo faces left! Totally different than every other logo, a special snowflake, just like we think we are! It’s angry, SO AMERICA. They are based in Philadelphia, which was literally our capital city for a while! The liberty bell is there! Why aren’t they higher? Because the Eagles ain’t won sh*t, and America wins sh*t.
4. The Patriots
Giant annoying bullies who talk stupid and are too proud of themselves, so much so that they make their own rules, man. So America.
3. The Cowboys
What? How are they not no. 1? Because no matter how gloriously American the cowboy is, The Cowboys are loyal to Texas, and Texas would be its own country if we let it.
2. The Steelers
Fat, angry, out of work industrial giants. Go America.
1. The Redskins
The Redskins? First? Why? Think about it. They are the actual first Americans. If you want to look at it a different way, the Skins represent all the shaming and systematic oppression of those people, the most American way to treat others! Plus how we totally ignore them and forget to change the name! They are based in Washington DC, the capital of the country, and is run by a greedy capitalistic megalomaniac with no regard for others but claims to support “traditions” which are actually offensive! Plus, we haven’t actually been all that great since the 90s and we have horrible gun related tragedies all the time (Sean Taylor). That is ‘MERCA as Sh*t.
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.
People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.
Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.
July 3, 2015
Published on 2 Jul 2015
Two months after landing in Gallipoli the fight has become a trench warfare. In Mesopotamia British troops were losing the optimism, they had felt just a few weeks ago. The change of seasons brought more heat, turning the weather from bearable to excruciating. Heat became a deadly foe. While the German crown prince Wilhelm unsuccessfully tried to break through the Western front in the Ardennes, the Austro-German force managed to drive back the Russians in the East.
… an air force has significantly under-reported the number of planes downed by one of its aces:
On June 26, the RCAF/Canadian Forces issued a news release stating that the new complex for the RCAF’s Chinooks at Petawawa will be named in honour of First World War flying ace Major Andrew McKeever of Ontario.
“Major McKeever was the epitome of what it means to serve one’s country, with an impressive 17 aerial victories to his name in the First World War,” stated Defence Minister Jason Kenney.
The RCAF news release also credited McKeever with 17 kills.
In addition, Kenney tweeted the details of the news release.
Defence Watch later cited the CF news release.
But a sharp-eyed Defence Watch reader pointed out that the Canadian Forces news release contained a major error.
McKeever had significantly more than 17 kills.
Nearly twice that number, actually. (But you can pick pretty much any number from 18 to 41 and be correct by at least one of the competing “standards”.)
Mark J. Perry talks about the outcome of a well-intended ban of bottled water at the University of Vermont:
Here’s the abstract of the research article “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” which was just published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (emphasis added):
Objectives. We investigated how the removal of bottled water along with a minimum healthy beverage requirement affected the purchasing behavior, healthiness of beverage choices, and consumption of calories and added sugars of university campus consumers.
Methods. With shipment data as a proxy, we estimated bottled beverage consumption over 3 consecutive semesters: baseline (spring 2012), when a 30% healthy beverage ratio was enacted (fall 2012), and when bottled water was removed (spring 2013) at the University of Vermont. We assessed changes in number and type of beverages and per capita calories, total sugars, and added sugars shipped.
Results. Per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars, and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed. Shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly, whereas shipments of less healthy beverages increased significantly. As bottled water sales dropped to zero, sales of sugar-free beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages increased.
Conclusions. The bottled water ban did not reduce the number of bottles entering the waste stream from the university campus, the ultimate goal of the ban. With the removal of bottled water, consumers increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages.
Wow, nothing worked out as expected by the college administrators at the University of Vermont: a) the per capita number of bottles shipped to the University of Vermont increased significantly following the bottled water ban, and b) students, faculty and staff increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages following the bottled water ban. Another great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And the bottled water ban was not costless – the university paid to modify 68 drinking fountains, they paid for a publicity campaign, and they paid for lots of “free” reusable water bottles; and what they got was more plastic bottles on campus of less healthy beverages!
Frances Woolley on the hidden advantages even a modest amount of money can provide:
Less often observed is that wealth itself generates consumption benefits, even if one never spends a dime of it.
I own a 12 year old Toyota Matrix. The front fender has collided with one too many snow banks, and is now held together with string. The exhaust system has seen better days. It breaks down occasionally. But overall it’s very cheap to run.
If I was poor, it would be tough having an old, unreliable car. The unexpected, yet inevitable, major repairs would be a financial nightmare. $750 to repair the clutch. $200 to fix the axle seal. If the car broke broke down, and I couldn’t get to work, I might lose my job.
But because I’m financially secure, I can afford a cheap car. I can self-insure against financial risks: unexpected repair costs, taxi fares, rental cars, and so on. I can afford to get my car towed. If it was beyond repair, I could get another car tomorrow.
The real value of having $10,000 in the bank isn’t $200 in interest income, or the stuff $200 in interest income might buy. $10,000 in the bank creates a little bit of room to take risks. One could call it the “implicit value of self-insurance generated by own capital.” It’s the comfort of being rich (or having rich relatives). It’s real. It’s valuable. But it wouldn’t be taxed if Canada had a consumption tax.
Admittedly, the insurance value of having wealth isn’t taxed under an income tax either. But at least under an income tax some of the return on wealth is taxed, so there is, at least potentially, some shifting of the tax burden onto those with wealth.
The greatest freedom money offers is the freedom to walk away. Your bank doesn’t offer you unlimited everything with no monthly fees? Walk away. There’s always someone else who wants your money. Your phone plan is too expensive? Walk away (o.k., that may not be the best example).
People with money have alternatives, which makes their demand for goods and services elastic. Food may or may not cost more in poor areas. But a rich person can shop at Value Village if he chooses. A poor person may not be able to afford expensive purchases which save money in the long run, like bread machines or high efficiency appliances or pressure cookers. Consumption taxes aim to tax the amount of stuff people actually consume. But if poor people pay a higher price for their stuff than rich people, is a system that taxes only consumption spending, without taking into account the ability to command consumption wealth conveys, fair?
When you read unit accounts, whether it’s the actual unit after action reports or the published books, everyone talks about Tiger tanks. But in looking at it in both German records and US records, I’ve only found three instances in all the fighting from Normandy to 1945 where the US encountered Tigers. And by Tigers I mean Tiger 1, the type of tank we saw in the film [Fury]. I’m not talking King Tigers, the strange thing is that the US Army encountered King Tigers far more often than Tigers. That’s partly because there weren’t a lot of Tigers left by 1944, production ends in August 1944. There were not a lot of Tigers in Normandy, they were mostly in the British sector, the British saw a lot of Tigers. Part of the issue is that US tankers were notorious for identifying everything as a Tiger tank, everything from Stug III assault guns to Panzer IV and Panthers and Tigers.
There was one incident in August of 1944 where 3rd Armored division ran into three Tigers that were damaged and being pulled back on a train, they shot them up with an anti-aircraft half-track. And then there was a single Tiger company up in the Bulge that was involved in some fighting. And then there was one short set of instances in April 1945, right around the period of the film, where there was a small isolated Tiger unit that actually got engaged with one of the new US M26 Pershing tank units. They knocked out a Pershing and then in turn that Tiger was knocked out and the Pershing tanks knocked out another King Tiger over the following days. So I found three verifiable instances of Tigers encountering, or having skirmishes with US troops in 1944-45. So it was very uncommon. It definitely could have happened, there are certainly lots of gaps in the historical record both on the German side and the US side. I think the idea that the US encountered a lot of Tigers during WW2 is simply due to the tendency of the US troops to call all German tanks Tigers. It’s the same thing on the artillery side. Every time US troops are fired upon, it’s an 88, whether it’s a 75mm Pak 40 anti-tank gun, a real 88, a 105mm field howitzer, they were all called 88’s.
“Interview with Steven Zaloga”, Tank and AFV News, 2015-01-27.
July 2, 2015
Published on 25 Feb 2015
In this video, we explore two more unintended consequences of price ceilings: long lines and search costs. What was it like waiting in long lines for gasoline back in the 1970s? Not fun. But why did this happen? When price ceilings were imposed on gasoline, people could not use prices to signal how much they were willing to pay for gas. Instead, the only way they could show how much (or how little) they wanted of gasoline, was to wait (or not wait) in line. Going to fuel up becomes less about paying in money and more about paying in time. At the end of the day, paying in time is much more wasteful. In this video, we’ll show how to calculate the value of the time wasted in line.