Published on 25 Feb 2014
Featuring the author Megan McArdle, Columnist, Bloomberg View; with comments by Brink Lindsey, Vice President for Research, Cato Institute; moderated by Dalibor Rohac, Policy Analyst, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute.
Nobody likes to fail, yet failure is a ubiquitous element of our lives. According to Megan McArdle, failing often — and well — is an important source of learning for individuals, organizations, and governments. Although failure is critical in coping with complex environments, our cognitive biases often keep us from drawing the correct lessons and adjusting our behavior. Our psychological aversion to failure can compound its undesirable effects, McArdle argues, and transform failures into catastrophes.
Video produced by Blair Gwaltney.
February 26, 2014
February 20, 2014
In sp!ked, Rob Lyons looks at the way e-cigarettes are being marketed in the UK and how it’s driving anti-tobacco campaigners absolutely insane:
For the tobacco-control lobby, an advert like Dorff’s is an absolute nightmare. It makes no health claims. It is clearly targeted at adults. It plays to the fact that even smokers dislike aspects of old-fashioned cigarettes, and are happy to compromise in order to get most of the pleasure of smoking without the hassle or the irritation to others. And then – God forbid – it even plays to the annoyance of smokers at the health fanatics. The last thing smoke dodgers want is for anyone to be able to take their freedom back. Even the existence of the sanitised offer from Vype’s say-nothing advert is anathema.
This was made abundantly clear in a report published by Cancer Research UK last year, The marketing of electronic cigarettes in the UK [PDF]. The authors are forced to admit that e-cigs ‘are accepted as being much safer than their conventional equivalents, so if smokers can be encouraged to switch there is the potential for significant public health gain’.
However, this message is quickly lost in a cloud of public-health cant. The threats, say the authors, include concerns that ‘hard-won tobacco-control policies (smokefree public places, the ad ban, age restricted sales, tobacco industry denormalisation, POS [point-of-sale] restrictions) are being undermined’ and that ‘there is evidence that young people, who have always been the key to the long-term viability of the tobacco industry, may be being pulled into the market’. The danger, say the authors, is that tobacco companies don’t want you to give up your addiction, just switch to a different delivery system. The problem with this argument is that the new delivery system is much, much safer. Why shouldn’t corporations try to sell us safe products?
In reality, what the anti-tobacco lobbyists (and their fans in Westminster and Whitehall) are really afraid of is the loss of their power and influence over our lives. They fear they will be helpless against the tide of e-cigs, like a great bunch of puritanical Cnuts. (Note to sub-editor: that’s definitely ‘Cnuts’, as in the Danish king who famously – probably apocryphally – tried to turn back the sea. Honest.)
E-cigs are a safe, practical alternative to smoking. For all the huffing and putting-a-stop-to-puffing, tobacco control has been an illiberal failure. E-cigs are encouraging smokers to switch, cut down or stop altogether far more successfully than all the bans, taxes, restrictions and useless nicotine-replacement therapies that have gone before. ‘Vaping’ is an unexpected but nonetheless happy success story.
February 19, 2014
Even as a child, I was vaguely annoyed by the LEGO kits that allowed you to recreate something you’d seen on TV or in the movies. The greatest thing about LEGOs is that you can use them to build anything your imagination can create. Castles, cars, airplanes, you name it: If you had the blocks and a mild spark of ingenuity, you could do just about any damn thing you pleased.
But the LEGOification of every aspect of popular culture is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the triumph of imagination. This ideal asks you to take something endlessly changeable and shove it into a tiny mental space already dominated by every other facet of popular culture. It’s a perversion of the LEGO ideal, a slap in the face of everyone who grew up tinkering with their building blocks in the hope of creating something new and exciting, something just for themselves or their friends.
Also, if you could get off my lawn, that would be great.
Sonny Bunch, “Knock It Off with the LEGOs, Jerks”, Washington Free Beacon, 2014-02-19
February 17, 2014
Unwanted telephone canvassers are a pain, and there aren’t many ways to end the unwelcome interruption without being rude. Amy Alkon has a new method she’s been trying out: I don’t think I’d have the nerve to pull this off, but it seems to be working for her:
I have a new tactic, and it’s fun. I turn it into a sex call. I started out asking the woman, “Are you wearing any panties” and then got into whether or not she was bucking the trend to go back to the full bush.
January 13, 2014
Virginia Postrel is interviewed at Paleofuture:
I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object — something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car — and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.
Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”
And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.
Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.
January 4, 2014
Tim Bray despises the word “content”:
I’m thinking about successful new communication channels, and how we talk about what’s in them. On Twitter, we say tweets. In the blogosphere and on Facebook, posts; also rants, reviews, and flames. Facebook has likes and now everything has links.
But I note the entire absence of “content”; the word, I mean. Yay! I’ve loathed it ever since its first powerpoint-pitch appearance, meaning “shit we don’t actually care about but will attract eyeballs and make people click on ads”. Except for they don’t say “people”, they say “users”, a symptom of another attitude problem.
With every year that passes, it’s increasingly clear that the appearance of “content” in any business plan is a symptom of (likely fatal) infection by cluelessness; and a good predictor of failure.
H/T to Charles Stross for the link.
January 2, 2014
When it comes to crafting winning political narratives, progressives have a natural advantage over conservatives. That’s because progressives have a free hand to project rosy visions of the future while conservatives must constantly defend against progressives’ distorted depictions of the past.
Two fundamental techniques undergird progressives’ success at narrative spinning. The first is skillful framing of the debate through investing heavily in public opinion making machinery. This disarms critics while giving lawmakers cover to vote for bills they’ve neither read nor understood. Thus framed, policies are judged only by their stated intentions, never their actual results. This allows politicians to promote new pieces of legislation named for their lofty objectives, even if the thousands of pages of vague and contradictory content deliver just the opposite.
The second is dodging all responsibility for failure. This is accomplished by blaming insufficient resources, the prior administration, the greedy 1 percent, sabotage by Republicans, or even the people’s obdurate failure to appreciate the progressive benefits conferred upon them. When the going gets tough, reality can be dismissed with a slogan. Forward!
Bill Frezza, “2013: The Year The Progressive Narrative Collided With Reality”, Forbes, 2013-12-30
November 20, 2013
Virginia Postrel on the legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy:
When she was 22, the future Jacqueline Kennedy won a Vogue contest with an essay in which she dreamed of being “a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century.” As first lady, she proved herself a genius at visual persuasion. She crafted her own image, refined her husband’s, re-created the White House’s, and even shaped America’s abroad.
Her most evocative and enduring image-making came when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago this week. She art-directed the funeral’s pageantry and then, in an interview with T.H. White for Life magazine, memorably linked her husband to one of the most powerful legends in the English-speaking world. Jackie created the myth of the Kennedy administration as Camelot: the lost golden age that proved ideals could become real.
The Arthurian legends traditionally operate as what the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “displaced meaning.” Every culture, he observes, maintains ideals that can never be fully realized in everyday life, from Christian charity to economic equality. Yet for all their empirical failings, such cultural ideals supply essential purpose and meaning, offering identity and hope. To preserve and transmit them, cultures develop images and stories that portray a distant world in which their ideals are realized — a paradise, a utopia, a golden age, a promised land, a world to come. Camelot is such a setting.
“When they are transported to a distant cultural domain,” McCracken writes, “ideals are made to seem practicable realities. What is otherwise unsubstantiated and potentially improbable in the present world is now validated, somehow ‘proven,’ by its existence in another, distant one.”
[...] The Kennedy administration ended with sudden violence from without, making Jackie’s analogy doubly potent. It suggested a parallel with a legendary Golden Age while simultaneously implying that, left to itself, this new Golden Age might have continued indefinitely. This Camelot was pure glamour: a frozen moment, its flaws and conflicts obscured.
Glamour invites projection. For 50 years, Americans of various persuasions have imagined their ideals embodied in a Camelot that might have been. Advocates of a vigorous Cold War foreign policy claim John Kennedy. So do their opposites. He did less for the civil-rights movement than his unglamorous successor, Lyndon Johnson, yet in imagination he would have done more. Above all, people imagine that somehow a living Kennedy would have prevented the tumult of the 1960s.
November 9, 2013
At the Daily Beast, Virginia Postrel argues that far from being dead, glamour is still a powerful force in our lives:
In a world that prizes transparency, honesty, and full disclosure, the very idea seems out of place. Glamour is an illusion that conceals flaws and distractions. It requires mystery and distance, lest too much information breaks the spell. How can its magic possibly survive in a world of tweeting slobs?
But glamour does in fact endure. It is far more persistent, pervasive, and powerful than we realize. We just have trouble recognizing it, because it has so many different incarnations, many of which have nothing to do with Hollywood or fashion.
Glamour isn’t just a style of dress or a synonym for celebrity. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that triggers a distinctive emotional response: a sensation of projection and longing. What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, depends on who we are.
One person who yearns to feel special finds glamour in the image of U.S. Marines as “the few, the proud,” while another dreams of getting into the city’s hottest club and yet another imagines matriculating at Harvard. For some people, a glamorous vacation means visiting a cosmopolitan capital with lots to do and see. For others, it means a tranquil beach or mountain cabin. The first group yearns for excitement, the second for rest. All of these things are glamorous — but to different people.
September 7, 2013
August 30, 2013
At the BBC News website, Joe Kent profiles today’s hero in the ongoing battle against annoying telephone solicitations:
A man targeted by marketing companies is making money from cold calls with his own higher-rate phone number.
In November 2011 Lee Beaumont paid £10 plus VAT to set up his personal 0871 line — so to call him now costs 10p, from which he receives 7p.
The Leeds businessman told BBC Radio 4′s You and Yours programme that the line had so far made £300.
Phone Pay Plus, which regulates premium numbers, said it strongly discouraged people from adopting the idea.
Mr Beaumont came up with the plan when he grew sick of calls offering to help him reclaim payment protection insurance (PPI), or install solar panels.
He said: “I don’t use my normal Leeds number for anyone but my friends and family.”
Once he had set up the 0871 line, every time a bank, gas or electricity supplier asked him for his details online, he submitted it as his contact number.
He added he was “very honest” and the companies did ask why he had a such a number.
He told the programme he replied: “Because I’m getting annoyed with PPI phone calls when I’m trying to watch Coronation Street so I’d rather make 10p a minute.”
He said almost all of the companies he dealt with were happy to use it and if they refused he asked them to email.
August 9, 2013
In Wired, Brett T. Robinson talks about the similarities of the “Apple cult” to religious beliefs:
Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age.
Like all advertising, Apple’s ads perform a vital educational function in consumer society. The advertisements are allegorical, rhetorical attempts to domesticate foreign and abstract concepts, making them accessible and attractive to everyday adherents.
In fact, they resemble medieval morality plays in their personification of good (Mac) and evil (PC). As such, the ads contain a moral — or, more explicitly, they propose a morality customized for the conditions of the age.
Media technology has acquired a moral status because it has become part of the natural order of things. Luddites, those who have sworn off new technologies, are the new heretics and illiterates. Technology is an absolute. There is no turning back or imagining a different social order. Challenge is acceptable as long as it remains within the confines of the technological order. Apple may challenge Microsoft. Samsung may challenge Apple. But the order must not be challenged.
The impact of digital culture, then, is epistemic; it insinuates a moral system based on its own internal logic.
In the Apple story, the brand cult began offline, with users meeting in real, physical locations to swap programs and ideas. Now, the Apple community is more diffuse, concentrated in online discussion groups and support forums. However, Apple product launches and conferences remain sacred pilgrimages where Apple fans can congregate, camp, and live together for days at a time to revel in the communal joy of witnessing the transcendent moment of the new product launch.
The reverence once reserved for holy relics and liturgy has reemerged in the technology subculture. The shared experience of living in a highly technological era provides a universal ground for a pluralistic society. There may be many different devices, but only one Internet.
Technology has become the new taken-for-granted order that requires our fidelity. Obedience to the new order is expressed in the communication rituals that take place every day in the use of computers, music players, and smartphones — devices that bind individuals together. From the farthest satellite to the nearest cellphone, the mystical body of electricity connects us all. Personal technology has become “the very atmosphere and medium” through which we mediate our daily lives.
July 30, 2013
Tim Worstall applauds you for wanting to use some of your economic surplus to help out the poor and less fortunate producers of various goods in the developing world, but points out that the “fair trade” method is incredibly inefficient at funnelling any of that extra money to the original producers of your coffee or other “fair trade” goods:
However, you might want to have a little think about this in the lights of these quite astonishing numbers:
An interesting statistic is that in 2010, retail sales of fair-trade-labelled products totalled about $5.5 billion, with about $66 million premium — or about 1.2 percent of total retail sales — reaching the participating producers. There has to be a better way of helping poor farmers. Having only 1.2 cents out of every dollar spent on fair-trade products reach the target farmers is a hugely inefficient way of helping these people. If people wish to help these farmers there has to be charities out there that can transfer more than 1.2 cents per dollar to them.
It may well be that you are exercising your consumer choice as a way to make the world a better place. It’s just an incredibly inefficient method of doing so and thus you might want to reconsider that plan.
My own supposition is that the reason Fair Trade is so appallingly inefficient is the number of Interchangeable Emmas who have to be paid from that money supposedly going to producers. It takes very many poor coffee farmers’ incomes to pay for the PR bod advertising Fair Trade coffee from an office in central London. It might well be better to simply do as Madsen urges, and buy things made by poor people in poor countries. Then send the money saved by not paying the Emmas off to a charity of some minimal efficiency. Or even, if coffee farmers are really your thing, simply drink an extra cup or two a day and send the money by increasing demand for their production.
Update: In a marginally related item, Jonathan Katz explains why the policy of sending food to distant lands is less an attempt to ameliorate hunger than it is a corporate welfare policy to prop up US agribusiness:
The problem, says Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell University and one of the world’s leading experts on food aid, is that the U.S. has an entirely different goal when it comes to sponsoring humanitarian assistance. Feeding the hungry has never been its sole purpose.
Rather, the historical goal of food aid has been to stimulate U.S. businesses — the agriculture and shipping industries above all. Modern food aid was devised in the early days of the Cold War as a way to dispose of government-held surpluses, in order to regulate crop prices at home and create markets abroad. The main programs in the early days of food aid didn’t even give food away for free, rather selling it to foreign governments at a discount. “It just happened that this could get advertised as and provide humanitarian relief on occasion,” Barrett said.
Over time, things began to change. Surplus disposal became less important than other forms of domestic price control, and the cheaply sold food did not prove very effective in opening markets. When in the 1970s and 1980s, food donated during famine emergencies in Asia and Africa proved effective, free-food distributions took over as the dominant programs.
Today, the major players in food aid are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as World Vision. But, because of how American laws are structured, domestic corporations still reap the much of the profit. Major U.S. agribusinesses can count on hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales to the government.
Shipping companies do even better. Federal law mandates that at least half of all U.S. food aid must be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged vessels. With shipping costs taking up nearly 40 percent of any food assistance funding, the law guarantees hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for shipping companies. The winner of the Mozambique shipment was no exception: Sealift Inc. has grossed $203 million in government contracts since 2011, mostly from the Pentagon, according to data at USASpending.gov. This benefit is not lost on the shipping industry: The sector’s leading coalition, USA Maritime, spent $250,000 lobbying Congress on food aid and cargo-preference laws in 2011 and 2012.
July 14, 2013
At Samizdata, Natalie Solent had a rather strong reaction to an unwanted form of contact the other day:
Discussion point: the ethical issues surrounding unsolicited sales phone calls
Is it better to just hang them or should we draw and quarter first?
A few days on, and she’s a bit more philosophical about it:
Before being overwhelmed by phone-induced homicidal rage the other day, I had intended to discuss a subject that has been interesting me lately, namely how difficult it is to specify in advance rules for social interaction. More specifically, I was pondering how hard it is to lay down rules for dealing with unwanted contact. Cold calling is one form of that; what are traditionally described as “unwanted advances” are another.
The problem is that word “unwanted”. To say, as the organisational psychologist quoted in this article does, that “An unwanted advance is a form of injustice”, strikes me as unfair. We are not telepaths. Quite often the only way one can find out that unwanted contact is unwanted is to ask, that is, to initiate unwanted contact. On the other hand while we may not have telepathy, we most of us do have empathy to help us guess in advance when advances might be unwelcome. Phone sales companies know to the fifth decimal place exactly how likely their calls are to be welcome. They know that the first four of those decimal places are filled by zeros, scumbags that they are. Few men asking a woman out have quite such a large database of prior results upon which to draw. I’m glad I’m not a guy! That last breath before you open your mouth to begin the sentence that might get you rejected cruelly or rejected kindly must be painful.
June 30, 2013
Icewine is what originally put Canadian wine on the international map. Icewine is an expensive thing to produce, and therefore has drawn a lot of cheaters into the market:
Canada is tightening the rules for producing its popular icewine, a sweet dessert wine that is only made in cold climates, to crack down on fraudsters who sell mislabeled bottles that don’t make the grade.
In regulations published this week, the Canadian government said any bottle labeled and sold as icewine must be made only from grapes that have frozen on the vine.
[. . .]
Because the frozen grapes only yield a tiny amounts of sweet liquid, the dessert wine has a high cost and a high price. Grapes are left on the vine until the temperature falls to -8C (18F) over a prolonged period, and usually harvested overnight.
“It’s liquid gold,” said Paszkowski.
In China, where icewine has become hugely popular, a thriving counterfeit industry is flooding the market with wines that don’t live up to the label, he said.
“It’s very difficult to regulate greed,” said Paszkowski. “We’ve identified counterfeit icewines even in five-star restaurants and hotels.”
H/T to Elizabeth for the link.