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Current Obsession:

The November 2012 General Election (in Florida)

The most recent entries are on this page, under the ticker. Here are older entries, and other items:
Moonbat in flight
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29 July 2015 - For the Children...

It's a compelling argument. Yesterday, BBC reported that Campaign calls for children's 'right to be forgotten', in which the iRights campaign seeks "to make the digital world a more transparent and empowering place for children and young people (under 18) by delivering a universal framework of digital rights, in order that young people are able to access digital technologies creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly." The very first right listed is the Right to Remove, which seems to refer to the right to remove material the child created, and not material created by others: "This does not mean young people would have an automatic right to delete reproduced data or content written or produced by others." On the other hand, "It must be right for under 18s to own content they have created, and to have an easy and clearly signposted way to retract, correct and dispute online data that refers to them [italics added]."

Appealing for children is likely an effective tactic for the Right to be Forgotten movement, which is, on the one hand, an appeal to protect people from harassment and from peccadillos past, but on the other hand, a great rug to cover shenanigans (and violate freedom of expression). Involving children in such a movement should be regarded with suspicion. All sorts of movements - from pursuit of alleged (and largely imaginary) Satanic ritual abuse, to criminalizing drug use, to banning books from libraries - are accompanied by heart-rending and occasionally sincere concern about children. Time to check the fine print.

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10 July 2015 - Academic Ethics

Considering the amount of junk science purchased by oil companies (see below), tobacco companies, it should be no surprise that the security apparatus would buy more, and of better quality. For several years, senior members of the American Psychological Association enabled the CIA, and later other US government entities, to employ torture during interrogation of prisoners captured during the "War on Terror." The APA has long distanced itself, occasionally disdainfully, from whatever was going on in the CIA's dungeons, but recently they charged a special committee to investigate the possibility of misconduct or collusion. The report is a serious indictment: in exchange for intangible benefits from the defense establishment, senior APA members colluded with national security people in adjusting APA guidelines, or closed their eyes and held their noses.

The media is speculating about criminal charges and public apologies, and like the report itself, focusing on the misconduct itself. But writing in the New Yorker last January, Maria Konnikova asked if the torture techniques were actually successful in obtaining usable information. As the report observed, "Through their training and experience, psychologists possess a special skill regarding how our mind and emotions work...," so if anyone could provide counsel to the CIA on this issue, it would be psychologists. Considering the paucity of evidence that the techniques used were useful - and considering that this torture did not actually produce much intelligence (the usable intelligence was developed by more boring techniques, like the standard endless-conversation-plus-Stockholm-syndrome tactic), there are two very awkward questions to ask:

  • Did psychologists, including senior members of the APA, encourage to inflict torture knowing that it served no useful purpose?
  • Did they misrepresent the effectiveness of torture, or remain silent as their clients gushed over its effectiveness - at least when practiced by Keifer Sutherland?
Of course, an enabler all too often is not defrauding the enabled so much as maintaining an unhealthy relationship. But it would not be the first time a sophisticated academic took advantage of a gullible thug.

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9 July 2015 - ExxonMobile and Climate Change

Global warming (actually, ocean warming: the ocean stores a lot more heat than the atmosphere, so the climate we experience is just the dog's tail) was anticipated but not regarded as an issue in the Nineteenth century. Chemists didn't imagine that we'd dump that much carbon into the atmosphere. It started becoming an issue in the 1970s: astrophysicists tracking the Earth's wobble anticipated global cooling possibly leading to a new Ice Age, and a few climatologists suggested that the carbon in the atmosphere might keep us warm. It seems that about that time, someone in Exxon got concerned about global warming problems posed by a natural gas field in Indonesia, and emails on the subject have just surfaced. What is particularly irritating about this is that since then, Exxon (now ExxonMobile) poured millions of dollars into climate change denial. The love of money, said St. Paul, is the root of all evil - or at least, in this case, of the evil of not caring what happens to the grandkids.

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28 June 2015 - The White Collar Middle Class

Unions were not the only source of the American Middle Class. There was also Harvard. The Nineteenth Century was a time of corporate empire building, and the corporate leadership invented bureaucracies to implement their directives: this was middle management. In one of the greatest marketing schemes of all time, Harvard President Charles Eliot persuaded corporations that middle managers required the skills, knowledge, and perspective that only a college education can provide. Prior to this alliance of academia and industry, American colleges produced teachers and ministers; now they produced managers who dreamed of becoming business executives. But now, over a century later, Sydney Finkelstein what the demand for middle managers will be during this century: like the old typing pools, middle managers are being replaced by information processing and communications technology -- and the changing mores these changes entailed. Of course, that means that academia may have to rethink its already tattered business model.

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22 June 2015 - Florida Democrats have met the enemy, and it is ...

Fellow dinosaurs may remember way back in 1998, when Buddy MacKay was running for governor, that there was some talk about the thinness of the Democratic bench. The Old He-Coon was stepping down, the Democratic majority that had relied on gerrymandering to keep in power was disintegrating, and the unions were deluded. That was seventeen years ago, and it is painfully clear that the reason why the Democratic Party is down to one statewide elected officer and minimal influence in either house in a state with a Democratic plurality is the lamenitude of the party. Of course the Pollyannas currently in power are enthused by President Obama's back-to-back victories here, but as Suzy Khimm observes, Florida is a case study in electoral failure. If the party hopes to win something in 2016, they will have to get organized and actually (shudder) interact with ordinary voters.

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16 June 2015 - The Climate Change Deniars' Real Opponent is Mother Nature

The Nation just publised an article by Naomi Klein on how Climate Deniers Are Quickly Bringing About Their Own Worst Nightmare. But that's just the headline; her story was about how solid the science is - a point that she admits (in fact declares) does not impress climate change deniars much. She never addressed the real problem: in the long run, delusion is disastrous. The reality is closer to Bill Nye's comparison of climate change to World War II: once the blitzkrieg starts, the utter failure of Chamberlain's policy was manifest. So the real question for the Republican Party should be how to protect their credibility as the climate turns foul.

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9 June 2015 - Who are all these trolls?

Anyone who has prowled the comments section of anything on the web has seen hostile and occasionally deranged stuff from trolls. Who are they? Two studies cited by the linked Wikipedia article suggest that trolls suffer from various psychological disorders (not a surprise). Anyway, a Swedish TV journalist figured out how to track down trolls, and he and his camera crew descended on a few trolls (see the Al Jazeera article on how ‘Troll Hunter’ exposes Sweden’s anonymous Internet haters). One interesting comment was: "I would say maybe a majority is a very, very loud group of right-wing extremists." Of course, this is one person drawing on his own experience in one country, but it raises the question: is there a correlation between right of wing and trollishness? A glance our spectrum would suggest that while there might well be a positive correlation between trollishness and right-wingishness, there should be a negative correlation between trollishness and conservatism. Something for the sociologists to investigate...

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8 June 2015 - A Reminder of What a Special Branch is For

A Special Branch typically a European department inside its Ministry of Interior (which handles security, as James Bond fans will recall), and its purpose is to track and neutralize threats to the tranquillity of the realm, including political threats. Just over a century ago, when Congress created what was then the Bureau of Investigation, some critics warned that it would become an American special branch. And within a decade, with an ambitious young J. Edgar Hoover at the helm, it did. And as the Guardian reports, it still is.

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15 May 2015 - If the Stitch in Time is Too Late...

For a quarter century, we have missed deadlines to act on climate change in a timely manner. The consequences may ultimately be as dire as western inaction in the face of Nazi and Fascist aggression during the 1930s. For a gloomy but realistic account of what we may be up against, click here.

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11 May 2015 - Seymour Hersh's Account of Bin Laden's Death

On the one hand, Hersh has been a little strange lately, and who are his sources, anyway? On the other, this account has the amount of muddle one would expect in an operation like this. Judge for yourself, the story is posted at the London Review of Books.

One point I can't resist making: if Hersh is right, then the Right-wing claims that torture helped get bin Laden are false.

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9 May 2015 - Making Economics More Than an Ideology

After Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus effectively launched as a science, it has been the handmaiden of ideologues -- possibly surpassed only by paleoanthropology. The remarkably high proportion of charlatans that have gone to Stockholm to receive a Nobel Prize in economics only underlines the corruption. Part of the problem is the desire to serve the rich, and part of the problem is physics envy: the result is a great deal of mathematization built on fictions like the Rational Agent, never actually observed outside of the planet Vulcan, if there. As the computer scientists have warned: garbage in, garbage out.

We are in the midst of a long-overdue revolution in which researchers - often non-economists - generate hypotheses and (are the Objectivist out there listening?) check them. The result is a study of the psychology of real (as opposed to rational) agents. One interesting strain arises from a microscopic look at the situation Malthus focused on: economics as a study of scarcity. One psychologist has focused on how people actually behave during times of scarcity, and his results suggest that people may be malfunctioning because they are poor, and not the other way around. For details, click here.

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8 May 2015 - Other Agendas

There are several reasons for taking a pro-life position in the abortion debate. The most obvious is to defend unborn children. But if you seriously believed that this was about unborn children, then you would support measures that dramatically reduced the abortion rate. If those measures - like making contraception widely available - also empowered women or even subliminally suggested an acceptance of extra-marital sex, that would be a small price to pay to protect human life. Of course, if your real motivation was to repress women or even criminalize sex, your reaction would be quite different. All of which makes the Colorado House's attempt to fund a contraception program - and the Colorado Senate's decision to kill the attempt - rather revealing: for details about pro-lifers versus "pro-lifers" in Colorado, click here.

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3 May 2015 - America and the Press

The US of A is sinking again in the ratings by Reporters Without Borders. During the Bush II administration, we sank from 17th out of 134 nations rated in 2002 to 36th out of 168 rated. Then there was a reversal: we were 20th out of 170 in 2009, but then we began sinking again, and we were rated 46th out of 180 for last year. Checking the map, the top 21 naitons are the usual good citizens (with the Scandinavians at the top, as usual), along with Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, etc., but also Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Namibia. The USA is towards the bottom of the second tier; at the top of the second tier are nations like Ghana, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, France, and El Salvador. The third tier starts with Haiti and Mongolia (one of the few nations with recent improvement), down through Kuwait, Greece and Israel to the fourth tier, inhabited by Qatar, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Venezuala, Mexico and Russia until we reach the basement, with the likes of Cuba, SOmalia, China, and North Korea - which seems to be not quite as bad as Eritrea.

One would think that the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave would not plant its big behind in the second tier.

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30 April 2015 - The Devil and the Spoon

The American Psychological Association has a difficult history with torture. In the bad old days, several senior figures ... enabled ... some of the government's darker exploits, and while the APA has come out against torture and against psychologists participating in torture (see the Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture), the organization has come under recurrent criticism for members who enable practices explicitly banned by the U. S. Constitution.

And it seems that once again, some senior psychologists affiliated with the APA have been caught enabling government-sanctioned torturers. Some members of Physicians for Human Rights wrote a report contending that senior members of the APA were corresponding with Bush II Administration officials on its torture program.

While the reflexive response of the APA was to issue a denial, the APA leadership is going to have to make some hard decisions. As the old line goes, if one would sup with the Devil, one should bring a very long spoon.

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22 October 2014 - Dittos and "Conservatives"

One of the important takeaways from this site is that Conservatives and The Right are two very different things. The conflation of the two is one of the major reasons for the breakdown of American governance today. And there is no greater conflater than the great American wurlitzer of the unConservative Right, Fox News.

Regardless of Mr. Murdoch's politics, his marketing strategy is ultimately not ideological. His goal is to make money, and for the Australian Crocodile (that's his old moniker) that meant capturing a market. Capturing the vast territory spanning Dwight Eisenhower to Joseph McCarthy required a lot of conflation and no little dissembling, but the commercial rewards for success are staggering.

Pew Research has just posted an iteration of its study of the polarization of American politics, focusing on media and social networking habits, and it shows the success of his strategy.

The monumental gullibility of the right side of the spectrum can be seen from the Trust Levels of News Sources graphic. With the decline of the Wall Street Journal, probably the most genuinely conservative organ is the rather Tory Economist, which got lower ratings from "consistent conservatives" than the WSJ, Fox News, the Blaze (Glen Becks's wacko bird nest) and the Drudge Retort (essentially a tabloid).

While we can easily imagine Paul Krugman saying that the left side of of the center is simply less gullible than the right, the presence of sources like the Daily Show and the Sean Hannity Show suggests that Pew has a different view of Americans. If Pew is right, we are in trouble.

Parting shot. Pew classified interviewees based on their positions on ten issues: see the The Ideological Consistency Scale. Of course, the "ideological consistency" is hooey: the scale has nothing to do with thinking things through and everything to do with herd instinct.

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22 July 2014 - Your Taxdollars at Work

Crime fighting is a difficult business. You have to detect the crimes, track down the criminals, collect evidence and debrief witnesses, all that jazz. If, like Gilbert and Sullivan's Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu, you don't catch and punish enough criminals, an ungrateful public thinks that the crime fighters are loafing on the job.

So what's a work-averse crime-fighter to do? How about ... concoct criminal schemes, beguile stupid riff-raff to execute the schemes, and then swoop in just in the nick of time to arrest the criminals? Consider the advantages:

  • You don't have to detect the crimes: you know in advance what they will be.
  • You don't have to track down the criminals: you know who they are.
  • You don't have to collect evidence: it's right there in your official records.
  • You don't have to debrief witnesses: you ARE the witnesses.
And to add icing to the cake, since you arrested the criminals just before they carried out their nefarious schemes, you're a hero.

Readers familiar with J. Edgar Hoover's publicity machine will not be surprised by a Human Rights Watch report that a substantial fraction of the terrorism cases prosecuted by the U. S. Department of Justice are of crimes featuring what traditionalists call an Agent provocateur, a police agent who incites people to commit crimes under the close observation of the police. Of course, unless one is inciting active terrorists -- which does not seem to be an FBI priority -- all this expensive activity does not protect us any.

It also alienates people who might otherwise be willing to assist the police. But it makes good theatre and helps persuade cynical politicians to maintain the money stream to the authorities.

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24 June 2014 - Mathematicians and the NSA

The National Security Agency is, among other things, the leading employer of mathematicians. So mathematicians have a particular interest to watch the Eric Snowden affair carefully.

The leading mathematics research organization is the American Mathematical Society, whose Notices of the AMS go to all members.

Reaction started appearing in the Notices last December, and since then there have been three submissions by mathematicians regarding the NSA:

  • In the December 2013 issue, the Notices ran a Letter to the Editor from Alexander Beilenson of the University of Chicago, in which he wrote: "...the NSA destroyed the security of the Internet and privacy of communications for the whole planet," and recommended that the AMS cut ties with the NSA (currently, the Notices of the AMS runs job advertisements and grant announcements for the NSA).
  • In the January 2014 issue, the Notices ran an Opinion Column entitled Dear NSA: Long-Term Security Depends on Freedom by Stefan Forcey of the University of Akron (and a current recipient of NSA funding) in which he wrote that while "...it is arguably altruistic, when danger looms, to agree to give up another freedom: specifically, the freedom from unwarranted searches of private property and communications," but "[t]he existence of databases storing our private communication conveys a certain degree of power to the few with access," and he warned that the NSA risked alienating the mathematicians on which it depends. He recommended a number of reforms.
  • In the February 2014 issue, the Notices ran a Communication entitled The NSA Back Door to NIST by Thomas Hales of the University of Pittsburg, who addressed one of Snowden's major revelations: the "back door" to encrypted communications that the NSA obtained via standards promulgated by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. The back door exploits a weakness in almost all encryption programs (and indeed, in most big data and simulation programs): random number generation. A random number generator produces numbers randomly, much as a fair coin generates strings of HEADs and TAILs randomly; thus a random number generator is, in principle, unpredictable. Random number generation requires specialized hardware, so most computers rely on pseudo-random number generators, which generate sequences of numbers that look random but are not: in particular, they are predictable. And the NSA persuaded the NIST to push for pseudo-random number generators whose effects the NSA could (to a sufficient degree) predict.
Michael Harris (of the Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu and Columbia University) and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor of the Notices) decided to solicit commentary from leading authorities for an article entitled Mathematicians Discuss the Snowden Revelations. They were unable to find anyone willing or able to write anything in defense of the NSA (!), but they got two pieces critical of the NSA:
  • Keith Devlin of Stanford University is one of the world's leading popularizers of mathematics. In The NSA: A Betrayal of Trust, he writes that the NSA's program of "...blanket surveillance is highly unlikely to prevent a terrorist attack and is a dangerous misuse of resources that, if used in other ways, possibly could prevent attacks (such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing)." He said that he reached this conclusion while working on a Defense Department project called "Novel Intelligence from Massive Data," and he expressed "...the feeling of intense betrayal I suffered when I learned how my government and the leadership of my intelligence community took the work I and many others did over many years, with a genuine desire to prevent another 9/11 attack, and subverted it in ways that run totally counter to the founding principles of the United States." In addition, "...when I hear officials from President Obama down say, 'It's just metadata,' I smell a deliberate attempt to mislead the population they are supposed to serve. Metadata tells you practically everything you need to know!" He also warned that massive amounts of data overwhelm the analysts: "...the bigger you make the dataset, the wider the information trawl, the more unlikely that it will lead to an effective countermeasure." Intelligence collection has to be intelligently targeted.
  • Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota is one of the world's leading experts on the internet, especially internet security. In The Mathematical Community and the National Security Agency, he says that "...our society has become preoccupied with terrorism to an absurd and harmful degree," and that this preoccupation drove the NSA's surveillance program. Odlyzko declines to comment on the program's legality, writing "...much of this activity is worse than a crime; it’s stupid Terrorism is a threat to our society, but it is simply not an existential threat that justifies extraordinary measures," and that the NSA program and similar efforts "will likely inhibit our ability to deal with many of the other threats and probably will even inhibit the antiterrorism campaign." Odlyzko said that the scale of the NSA effort made the Manning and Snowden leaks inevitable, especially considering the NSA's habit of outsourcing work to private companies. "However, I do not see the NSA as a rogue organization engaging in amoral activities. What it has been doing has been done with wide support of almost all responsible officials ... and is not that far beyond what various private organizations have been doing."
Harris and Jackson say that they will continue to solicit expert reactions.

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18 May 2014 - The Road to Hell

To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, sympathetic plaintiffs can make bad law. Across the Atlantic, the European Court of Justice recently ruled that a private individual who wants to put an ancient awkward bit of his past out of the reach of browsers has the right to do so: search engines will be required (in Europe) to honor requests not to display links to old embarrassments. But as the Voice of America asks, When Does Privacy Become Censorship?

Before my fellow Americans exclaimm "Thank God for the First Amendment," a reminder that American courts are equally high-minded. An ex-wife (and apparently estranged mother) has just been Barred From Ranting About Family On Facebook. Her rants, which apparently ranged from Jeffrey Dahmer to Adolf Hitler, were "disturbing" to her family, and the court said that barring her from Facebook served the purpose of deterring "her from engaging in behavior that is harmful to her victims and to lead a law-abiding life."

Of course, these rulings are precedents useful to less sympathetic opportunists who wish to suppress inconvenient history. A sideways glance at the unhappy history of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation - and the courts' near nonfeasance in the face of such abuses - suggest that this recent high-mindedness will have its costs.

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18 May 2014 - If Wishes Were Horses

The Koch brothers have a diversified empire that rests on a great pool of oil, and they have waged a public campaign against measures addressing climate change in order to defend their own financial interests. That is probably not how they see it, but whatever their rationalizations, that is the effect of projects like this recent pledge that any measures addressing climate change be revenue neutral. Florida politicians who have publicly exhibited their greater concern for their careers (or their ideology) over Florida's future include U. S. Senator Marco Rubio, U. S. Representatives Gus Bilirakis, Ron DeSantis, Jeff Miller, Rich Nugent, Bill Posey, Steve Southerland, Daniel Webster, Dennis Ross, Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. But the salutory effect of this pledge on their careers may be shortlived, for as the Koch brothers continue to pour vast sums in pursuit of junk gas, there is a growing Rift Widening Between Energy And Insurance Industries Over Climate Change. As of yet, the insurance companies have not put the kind of effort into climate change that they have put into, say, tort "reform", but as climate change poses far greater costs down the road, that may change. Stay tuned.

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7 May 2014 - Was Edmund Burke Conservative?

Ever since Russell Kirk claimed Edmund Burke as a conservative, intellectual conservatives have claimed the skeptical, reformist, anti-individualist, anti-radical parliamentarian as a sort of father of conservatism. Burke was indeed a great advocate of the evolution-not-revolution school of conservatism that spans from Benjamin Disraeli to Dwight Eisenhower, but he certainly does not belong to the individualist party who claim to be "conservative" while advocating radical upheavals for the sake of various ideologies. Drew Maciag claims that The Latest Remake of Edmund Burke, by Yale literature professor David Bromwich, provides a more comprehensive look at Burke than the usual "cartoon" popular today.

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3 October 2013 - While Everyone was out Pursuing the Shutdown ...

While the House Republicans - a majority of a majority in one of the houses of Congress - sought to win by media tantrum what they couldn't win at the ballot box last year, updates from the bipartisan front on the Surveillance State, both from the Guardian:

No doubt Attorney General Eric Holder has an excellent explanation for all this, but it is disconcerting when the Justice Department breaks the law and a federal judge plays lapdog. Your tax dollars at work.

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2 September 2013 - Death, Taxes and Bureaucracy

There is a tendency among some historians to imagine that bureaucracy - like terrorism - was invented during the Eighteenth Century. In Peter Lopatin's review of Ben Kafka's The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork, we are told that Kafka traced the word ``bureaucracy'' back to 1764, and the MIT Press overview of the book says that ``Since the middle of the eighteenth century, political thinkers of all kinds–radical and reactionary, professional and amateur–have been complaining about 'bureaucracy', ''

But if we remember those little red boxes that had already been circulating in China for some time - and who ran the Empire, the emporer or those little red boxes? - and the class of scribes in ancient Egypt, it seems likely that bureaucracy is as old as urbanization. And whomever does the work wields the real power: ``I do not rule Russian,'' complained Czar Nicholas I, ``Ten thousand clerks do.'' And there was not much he could do about that.

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20 August 2013 - Is Manning Mad? - revised 22 August 2013

In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More assures his wife that "This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made." Of course, he turned out to be wrong, and the issue of that play was integrity. From the safe distance of over five centuries, we probably find More's conduct (at least in that film) admirable, we do not share Thomas Cromwell's exasperation. And even if we are suspicious of the Pope's cynical motivations, we are not surprised that More was canonized.

Actually, saints are often a bit mad. I mean real saints, like Francis of Assisi and John the Baptist, not mere doctors like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas much less ersatz saints like Cyril of Alexandria and Dominic of Osma. We often get the wrong idea about saints because of sappy movies like Ingrid Bergman's portrayal in Joan of Arc, but Jeanne d'Arc really was one of those intractible people from another universe.

Which brings us to Bradley Manning. There has been a lot of discussion of Manning's numerous mental problems, but a recent column in the Guardian raises the issue of whether Manning is of the stuff from which martyrs are made. Well, saints (real ones) are notoriously difficult to live with.

More, like Manning, had broken the law. The problem was the Henry VIII, like Obama, had broken the law, and More's crime, like Manning's, was to play a significant (and intolerable) role in making the the sovereign's lawlessness clear. And Henry VIII knocked many laws flat in pursuit of More, just as Obama knocked many laws flat in pursuit of Manning. (Both pursuits were justified by national security: England faced a succession crisis when it was internally divided and facing a far greater hostile power - Spain - that would ultimately attempt to invade England.) But it may be worthwhile to remind our Attorney General - and of the following lines from John Bolt's play:

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil the benefit of the law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that.
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

After all, Obama will leave office in 2017, and the next president will be ...

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Older stories are posted in the Ticker Archive.


Politics is a bit like football.

There's a huge stadium, with the Serious Players on the field, the Main Stream Media in the press box, tanked up rowdies in the nosebleed seats, plutocrats and their rented companions in their skyboxes, and Vegetarians outside playing a tag football game no one pays attention to.

This being real life, Serious Players are supposed to confront our major challenges, the problems and opportunities we all face. And the Main Stream Media is supposed to address the issues of the day. But the Serious Players seem more interested in scoring points while the Main Stream Media is more interested in tallying penalties. Ordinary people don't like the focus on winning and losing – at least, when pollsters from the Mainstream media go walk among the seats, talking to ordinary Americans eating hotdogs and watching American Idol on their cellphones, those ordinary Americans complain about how politicians never actually do anything. The Mainstream Media responds by talking about bipartisanship. (They've been talking about bipartisanship for years.) Then they go back to their breathless sports-style reporting of who's up and who's down and what the handicappers say.

But perhaps the Mainstream Media is right. Perhaps politics is a sport. We do suspect this – look at all the sports analogies in politics – but it may be more than a cliche. Politics may involve the same psychological and social mechanisms that sports do, and may even have evolved from primitive sports.

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Many primitive tribes engage in forms of primitive "warfare". Two villages confront each other over a contested orchard: there's a lot of yelling, posturing, and occasional spear-throwing, leading to someone getting killed, and then a truce for the funeral, followed by more confrontations, etc. Or a group of (usually male) villagers might sneak into another village's territory and kill one of those villagers. Both forms of "warfare" appear very ancient: troops of monkeys battle
for females or over turf, and chimpanzees have been observed raiding and killing members of rival troops.

As for us, archeologists have found a lot of bones of stone age people who died violently.

But troops and villages are small; once urban societies arose, neighboring villages had to find other ways to resolve their differences. (In addition, the societies needed to build a sense of community, while the cities needed to get young men into fighting trim when cities warred against their neighbors.) Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hindus, Chinese, Mayans, and of course Greeks and Romans had organized sports.

Historically, sports and politics seem intertwined: many Greek heroes seem to migrate back and forth between the battlefield and the Games, and politicians from Alcibiades to Nero played the games (Alcibiades entered chariot teams – as did Nero, who actually drove a chariot).

One of the most notorious examples of political sports was chariot racing in Constantinople. The races were between competing teams (named for their colors), and the antics of the Greens and the Blues make today's Democrats, Republicans, and British soccer fans look tame. (In 532 AD, Green and Blue fans joined – during a race, of course – in five days of politically motivated riots that nearly scared the Emperor Justinian off his throne.)

For the last five thousand years, more and more of us have lived in these cosmopolitan societies consisting of many diverse groups that would – in the wild – be tempted to make war on each other. But the societies can't put up with that, so raids were forbidden and ersatz confrontations were organized around competitions between (largely male) youngsters. Pacifists would have to admit that this is better than the alternative, but there is a problem.

Competitive sport becomes the model for politics. Football fans may romanticize about the lessons of life learned on the gridiron, but it was a leading neoconservative who wrote of one notoriously ferocious game,
[Chess] is not just monomaniacal and abstract, but its arena is a playing field on which the other guy really is after you. The essence of the game is constant struggle against an adversary who, by whatever means of deception and disguise, is entirely, relentlessly, unfailingly dedicated to your destruction. It is only a board, but it is a field of dreams for paranoia.
Charles Krauthammer seems to have written about Bobby Fischer without irony or considering the possibility that he was looking in some kind of mirror. Sports may channel aggression, but the canyon it carves affects the society as a whole. Habits of thought are habit-forming, and Krauthammer himself is a notable example of someone whose political thought is more appropriate for the gridiron than running a government.

He is not alone. How many of us judge a proposal by the color of the proposer's shirt?

*              *              *

We've heard from the grown-ups. "Politics," said the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, "is the art of the possible." And that art, wrote novelist Leonard Wibberley, is to "snatch compromise from the jaws of disaster." "Compromise," remarked Gerald Ford during his vice presidential nomination hearings, "is the oil that makes government go." This is true of the Senate, wrote Senator James Eli Watson: "Every legislator understands that no measure of importance ever could be passed without this give-and-take policy being practiced to the limit." It may be true that Compromise (with its companions Prejudice and Treachery) was one of Cyrano de Bergerac's great enemies in the end, but de Bergerac was not a grown-up.

The traditional view of compromise is that people are concerned with their own problems; high-minded concern for the public interest is difficult to maintain, especially since most people tend to confuse the public interest with their own. If one group of people, even the group of people in power, pursue their own aims on their own, the rest of society will be indifferent or even hostile, and the pursuit will collapse or lead to a wreck. Only by getting a working majority on board will a great project succeed, but that means effecting compromise among the players.

The obvious retort is that there are compromises and there are compromises. We can take two examples from our own sordid past.

  • One of the famously good compromises was Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of New Year's Day, 1863.
    • It transformed the American Civil War from a struggle to save the union – a struggle that had become a little lame, politically – into a struggle to abolish slavery, which inspired many people across the nation and opened up more resources.
    • It discouraged interventionists in Europe, who had supported the Confederacy but who did not want to be seen as pro-slavery.
    • It resolved the legal question of what the union should do with "contraband" slaves who had escaped from the Confederacy (answer: recruit them into the Union Army).
    • It laid the groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
    But it did not free many actual slaves, and that was the compromising aspect of it. It applied only to slaves in states in rebellion; slaves in loyal states remained in chains. But despite complaints about the compromising aspects of the Proclamation, it did the job Lincoln wanted the proclamation to do.
  • One of the notoriously bad compromises was Article One, Section Two, Clause Three of the U. S. Constitution, directing that House seats and federal taxes be applied to the states proportionate to their populations, not counting native Americans and counting "other persons" at three fifths each. Those "other persons" were the slaves: southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention insisted that slavery not be abolished by the Constitution (a popular idea among high-minded northern delegates). But in the grand tradition of having one's cake and eating it too, they also insisted on maximizing southern representation in Congress in order to be able to collectively defeat anti-slavery legislation. The resulting compromises were:
    • In Article 1, Section 2, each slave would count as 3/5 of a person when drawing Congressional districts and apportioning taxes. With its cotton and tobacco, the South could afford to pay the heavier taxes.
    • In Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, slaves could be imported into the U. S. until 1808, and until then, slave importation would be taxed. Again, the South paid extra for slavery.
    • In Article 5, on amendments, exempted Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 from amendment and, perhaps as a sop to money-conscious northerners, Clause 4 (on taxes derived from Clause 1).
    The compromise looked good at the time: all the overt pro-slavery stuff would expire or be subject to amendment after 1808, and many pundits thought that slavery was a dinosaur that would be on its way to extinction by 1808.
As it turned out, slavery and the cotton gin made the lower Mississippi the wealthiest part of the country, and instead of easing slavery into oblivion, this compromise became the first of a sequence of increasingly embarrassing compromises – most notably the compromises of 1820 and of 1850 - that kept the whole mess going until the 1860 issue of Texan slavery led to an explosion. The only reasonable defense that anyone has ever come up with for the original compromise is the question: well, what should the convention have done?

The burning question is often whether the pursuit was worth the compromise. Winston Churchill said that he'd form an alliance with the Devil against Hitler, and indeed he did form an alliance with Stalin. It was a pretty awful compromise, but it was probably the best that could have been done at the time, and far worse than the alternative.

So there is the traditional argument for compromise: it is the only way to get things done. Historically, the alternatives are paralysis and terror. Paralysis because the various groups manage to sabotage all projects, and nothing gets done; think of Weimar Germany before Hitler became Chancellor. Terror because one group gets into power and acts as it pleases; think of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety. Notice that neither paralysis nor terror actually lasts very long, although they can alternate back and forth for a while.

*              *              *

But there is another reason for compromise. Politics is the means by which society finds solutions to common problems, and the search for solutions is more effective if a more diverse group of people search for those solutions. Consider the economic problems we face today. Despite vehement claims from Economics departments, economics is not really a science; all the traditional schools of thought in economics are ideological positions supported by anecdotal data. But we need to fix our economy, even if our economists don't really know what to do. So what to do?

"There's a right answer and a wrong answer to all our problems," quipped Art Hoppe (in his parody of Richard Nixon), "and the solution lies somewhere in between." The way to find solutions is to look for them, often in places that ideologically homogeneous searchers would not look: if all the solution-finders have the same point of view, the result is merely an exercise in groupthink.

No president faced economic problems more daunting than those that confronted Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a pragmatic opportunist with no ideological commitments. When confronted with a problem, he would get a panel of leading experts with a range of views on the subject, and tell them to present him with a consensus proposal. This has been a model for problem-solving executives ever since.

An effective search requires people of many divergent points of view. There are two reasons for this.

  • In computer science, a program that searches for a solution to a problem conducts its search through a search space. Frequently, there's just an array of specifications to satisfy, and one has to hunt for the resolution that fulfills those specifications reasonably well.

    For an economic or social problem, there is also a huge search space. Confronted with any problem, there are many possible solutions, some better than others, some familiar (searchers will have preconceptions about these) and some strange (searchers won't know what to make of these). Humans being lazy, a group of people with just one or two points of view will be tempted to pick up and then squabble over one or two familiar solutions. A diverse group (preferably with some ornery searchers) will hunt for novel solutions and wind up with a greater range of options.
  • Even if there are many useful solutions out there, somewhere (and often we just want some reasonably good solution), the searchers have to recognize it as a useful solution. If the searchers share just one or two points of view, there will be a tendency to ignore any solution that does not fit searcher preconceptions. A man hears what he wants to hear. More to the point, we tend to observe what we are prepared to observe. On the other hand, if the searchers have many points of view, searchers will be motivated (out of inspiration or irritation) to notice a wider variety of solutions.
It's become conventional wisdom in business and engineering management that when a company wants a solution to a problem, its team of searchers should be relatively diverse. This appears to be true across a spectrum ranging from software engineers to volunteer groups; for a theoretical overview, see Hong and Page's somewhat mathematical analysis, and for a description of how a heterogeneous team works, see Fabian Robinson's paper in NESUG 2008. Politicians and pundits are also more likely to find usable solutions if there is a diversity of opinion among the searchers.

One problem surfaced in the paper on volunteer groups, and seems to be quite common: although heterogeneous groups are more successful, they seem less so to the participants. All these strange people in the group, with their strange ideas, at best wasting our time. Francois Revel claimed that although almost everyone values pluralism as an ideal, few people actually like dealing with diverse groups of people. And while many people find a wide variety exhilarating (why else live in New York?), actually working with a different sorts of people can be discombobulating.

*              *              *

If politics were about solving problems, then the typical reaction to a major figure taking a contrary position (with respect that that person's political party) would be open-minded interest. After all, this is a problem we are facing, and if a credible person sees a difficulty or an opportunity, we should listen. If a prominent feminist takes a pro-life position, or if a Zionist pundit supports an Palestinian proposal, or if a stern moralist praises today's youth, the novelty alone should make ears perk up. Taking a contrary position risks one's credibility, so if this contrarian feels this strongly about it, perhaps we should listen to find out what this contrarian has to say.

But that's not the usual reaction.

In politics, participants tend to regard the game as a confrontation between good and evil. Certainly the abortion and Israel controversies presume this: that's practically the only thing both sides are willing to agree on. So a contrarian is a traitor. In fact, moderates are often dismissed with disgust: they aren't strong enough, or committed enough, or they're Red (or Blue) In Name Only.

As far as fans are concerned, when those RINOs and BINOs get together, they aren't there to solve problems. They're there to sell us out. That is how it plays in the cowboy movies: the whiny guy in the gray hat goes to work things out with the black-hatted villain and winds up giving away the farm. While we know that life is not a cowboy movie, cowboy movies are part of our folklore, and folklore is how we think. In fact, the reason cowboys are part of our folklore is that cowboys resonate with instincts as old as our ancestors in the trees.

And what we think is that a RINO or a BINO is not one of us, and that an honorable opponent is better than a knife in the back.

So here we sit, enduring protracted paralysis with brief spurts of chaos. All because we are good and they are evil and problem-solving is less important than victory – for some true believers, problem-solving is worse than defeat, for at least an honorable defeat is a moral victory. If we are lucky the problem solves itself, one way or another...

-- 6 March 2013

About me. My name is Greg McColm, I have pretensions of being a freelance writer (I have actually gotten some works published by gullible magazines and newspapers), and it is my ambition to appear in the next edition of David Horowitz's list of dangerous professors.

  • Like many writers, I have a personal website which, in my case, is devoted to the problem of being a writer and therefore (and this is the irritating part) having to write on occasion. Notice that it is up only in the most technical meaning of the word.
  • I am indeed a pointy-headed university professor, and a union activist to boot, although neither my university nor my union are in any way responsible for the existence of, much less the contents of, this site.
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