Friday, January 31, 2020

Rethinking Obama Because of Trump

I had plenty to disapprove of in Barack Obama because of his policies and his willingness to let others be vicious on his behalf.  Yet what I often said aloud during his years was how much I disliked his narcissism:  his unwillingness to listen to his own chosen advisors, such as on the drawdown of troops, and his declaration “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” The disdain he had for others was palpable.  He was the only intellectual in the room. This in the face of his supporter Richard Epstein's assessment “I like Obama but I reject the suggestion that he is an intellectual. He is an activist merely mimicking the mannerisms of an intellectual."

It just grated.  It was part of what I thought was wrong with his presidency.

But I'll have to drop that now.  You see, I don't much like Trump's manner and I think he's arrogant too.  Yet I have been telling people to ignore that and focusing on what he is doing instead.  Don't listen to what he says, watch what he does, I have said since his election. If I extend that grace to him, I have to do that retroactively for Obama as well.  Personality is not entirely separable from approach and strategy, but insofar as it is possible, I have to do that. I don't think I will find it easy, even with the supposed advantage that I disagree with Obama's philosophy strongly and have plenty of room to land that helicopter even without the added space of disliking him.

Because I see how difficult this is for myself, I sort of get it why people who have a visceral dislike for this president can't easily get around that either.  He made crude sexual remarks and that is therefore enough part of him that people can't forget it.  I will note that he hasn't been doing any of that the last ten years - unlike some presidents even while in office - and he deserves some credit for that.  Doesn't he?

Note: In my objection to Donald Trump I do recognise that he is not going for the same effect as Obama or other presidents. He is not trying to be Reagan or George H.W Bush and failing at it.  He is doing something different.  All presidents do, but DJT is farther from the usual.  I also know that I am mostly being shown the worst of him, even by his defenders who are trying to show that this comment or that is not as bad as portrayed.  When I have followed what he is actually tweeting, he spends a lot of energy praising people and encouraging them.  This gets missed.  Still, he does say what he says.

Someday Soon

Ian Tyson wrote the original, though Judy Collins brought it higher up the charts.  I sang this in high school with Christine Riley.

When they flip over the album cover and show the notes on the back at about the 1:30 mark I was nostalgic for the times.  Lots of folk albums looked like that on the back in those days, text-heavy. Nerdy people would remember the information without even trying, such as we are, and recall thoroughly useless bits decades later.

Odd Things I Noticed

I was north of Houston, In Spring, TX this week and last. They seem very fond of making all residences the color of some variety of sand. It was true for towns west of Houston as well. In the 1980's-era section my son was in there was enormous variety of layouts for the various houses, far more than one would find in New England. Yet little variation in color. The streetnames border on the bizarre for a flat (flat!) area with no mining: Stonemist, Castlemont, Ironcrest, Enchanted Rock, Copper Hill. My son likens them to names on a map of a fantasy novel.  I suppose with that many new streets in a series of suburbs spreading out the developers use up the good names pretty quickly and have to resort to lists of charming words that they throw darts at, picking two per street.

No trash barrels in public areas.  I am used to every supermarket, hardware store, and strip mall having a bin outside entrances.  I don't know what they are hoping to accomplish, but it did seem that there was very little litter in parking lots.

I knew I was in a very different culture when I saw big signs advertising Montessori schools, sometimes miles from the school itself.  In New England, the signage can be so minimal that it's hard to locate the place.  My son's girlfriend, who was an elementary school teacher and is now a children's librarian, tells me that those are often the faux Montessori schools, trading in on the name.  She gave as an example a friend who had a son bring back a drawing he had made on which the directress had noted that leaves on trees were green, not pink.  In a real Montessori school they would be correcting him for using green, rather than something more creative.

Theology and the Sermon

A wilderness may be very delightful for a man of wit and culture who knows he can return to civilization, but making a living on a frontier is a pretty grim business for an artist and a scholar. (Samuel Eliot Morison The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England 1936
Morison was answering the charge, as common in his day as in ours, of intellectuals bemoaning the lack of fine art and great literature in the first century of puritan life in New England. It was fashionable even then to complain that they wrote little but sermons and theology. The great historian points out that it is amazing that they did anything at all, given the circumstances, and attributes the problem more to the arduous work of founding a colony than any supposed inherent suppression of culture because of that faith. Much of the book points out what they did accomplish compared to many other groups in similar circumstances in history.

It put me in mind of Henry David Thoreau, who I much dislike despite my agreement with a few of his ideas.  Artificial wilderness experiences are fine, and I have liked them myself.  But they carry the danger of convincing us that we understand that life. Thoreau brought his laundry back for his mother to do for him every week, for example. Moving across the ocean to New England, of all places, and during the Little Ice Age, is quite a different matter. They didn't go there to get back to nature - the less nature and more artifice the better, in their view - nor to "get away from it all" in anything but the spiritual sense of getting away from evil and ungodly influence. Going to Walden Pond is fine, but it's not the same thing.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Worship of the Present

I am back from visiting Ben in Houston, where I took notes of what I was thinking, in between cutting and burning brush and small trees and other tasks about the house he has neglected to accomplish the half-dozen years he has lived there. The large master bedroom and bath remain unused, for example, stacked with books and framed art on the floor.  The trim is taped as if someone is going to paint the walls someday, and there is plastic over the carpet to catch the paint that isn't there.  However, he has a serious girlfriend who is taking some matters in hand herself and impressing upon him the need to take others in hand himself.  I liked her very much, not only as an enjoyable person to talk with, but how she matches with my son.

On to the matter for observation.

The 1619 Project is only the most visible attempt to reinterpret the past. Reinterpreting the past is always necessary, as we understand ourselves better by looking through the archives of humanity.  However, this does not mean that all reinterpretations are equally valid or equally useful.  Even the wrongheaded ones have some use, for they at least capture a little something. Yet in this case I think there is a dishonesty right out of the gate. Many current reinterpretations, including 1619, are not actually about the past.  They are an attempt to change things in the present, using the past as a weapon.

While this immediate application of the past to the present is what we have always done, even before we were literate and had historians, this is a more direct line and skips important steps.  The past must be studied first for its own sake, without thought of its current application. We might approach the past with love or with hatred, but we must first try and find out what it is.  Modern readers will object that this is never possible.  Everything is interpretation, every reading of history makes selections and neglects other data, we would say in our era. We cannot even notice much of what occurred, because our assumptions blind us. I find this reasoning merely silly.  Of course we can know.  We only know poorly and approximately; we bring enormous biases; we must constantly revise, all this is true. If one squints hard enough, we are capable of making anything look like anything.

Next, worrying about climate change is supposedly about the future. It is not.  If it were about the future then the worriers would have at least passing concern about the future of the economy as well.  They would care at least some about the future of our institutions and culture.  It might be about the near future, an extension of the present where they will live their next ten or twenty years, but it is not about what will happen in fifty or one hundred years.  As with the weaponised past, this is the weaponised future, used to make the world look as they wish right here and now. The future is an even more open canvas than the past, on which clever artists can paint images of destruction to their hearts content.

I prefer the images of the future that we had in the past, myself.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


I leave for Houston this afternoon, returning next week.  I will check in here, but less frequently. I'll try to put something up just to keep the conversation going.  I hope I remember how to sign in.

I will actually be in Spring most of the time, though I will go in to First Methodist Houston with my son Ben, who is Director of Communications there.  West Campus on Sunday @ 11:11am, downtown campus on Tuesday. Come on by if you are in the area.

I'll be working around his house and meeting his friends the rest of the time.

Monday, January 20, 2020


Just when I had calmed down about the damn coyotes.

NH man chokes coyote to death after it attacks his son. Kensington isn't near, but it isn't far, either.  It's near my brother's house.

I don't have a high view of wild animals in general.

Improved Math Instruction

I will be thrilled if this works. Some observations.

Brilliant new educational ideas often don't scale up. They work as long as you have motivated, specially-trained teachers who want everyone to succeed. However this seems to have allowed for some of that in its design, and may get past it.

This is not the math drills beloved by education traditionalists, but it does involve repetition and seems a cousin to drill. They are wise to not call it that. It breaks the work into even smaller components. It is emphatically not the way many newer math approaches have gone the last sixty years. Traditionalists might want to be prepared to embrace this as at least a less-bad alternative.

Farther down the article we get into some unanswered problems.  The creator of JUMP is pleased that it works from a "growth mindset."  This is very fashionable these days but remains unproven, except in the fairly obvious - well, it used to be fairly obvious anyway - idea that anyone can get better at things if they work at it. It is good to keep children, or anyone, from being discouraged too early.  Yes, it does feel bad when you compare yourself to others and aren't as accomplished.

The problem of the better students being bored is glossed over.  Supposedly, they are going to be happy because the whole class is happy and we're all in this together.  Who needs silly old grades!  We're having fun! The whole class is doing better, and the other students are happy! Uh, does this actually happen?  I remember my second son throwing himself on the floor in despair the first week of first grade, wailing "Can't we at least do the numbers up to TEN?" A friend who was a math teacher gave him the bad news that every year of his school career in math would start with review.

I also don't like that they think bell curves will go away if teachers don't expect them.  Tightening the distribution is a fun phrase, but I mistrust it. Also, what happens later in school?  Do we apply this tightening in Algebra 1, so that the class doesn't move forward until almost everyone has got it right?  Are we going to have any real mathematicians in the future, or just a lot of people who have mastered fractions and decimals? Maybe that's a better outcome, but my initial prejudice is against it.

The better students might just glaze over and self-teach, which might be better anyway.

If this does actually work better, I cynically predict it will be undermined by the education establishment who want other things to be true. They want their previous methods of "discovery" and "inquiry" to prove out.  They are sure that they will prove out. Those are just better ideas, gosh-darn it, and we are cheating children if we don't give them that experience, you fools. They will resist implementation of repetition and breaking things into smaller steps, because that is "selling students short," and not "teaching them to learn." If JUMP is brought in, they will try to relegate it to supplementary status.  Failing that, they will introduce their old methods as a supplementary status because "lots of children learn better that way," sans evidence. The supplement will gradually encroach on the mandated new program, and when there is no improvement they will claim "See?  It doesn't work.  We had better go back to the "old" way."  If you think that can't happen, that is exactly what did happen to drill.

The first part of the method might work, and even if it doesn't work totally, it might be better than what we are currently doing. Let's hold that second part at arm's length.

Top-Down and Bottom Up Perceptions, WRT Schizophrenia and Autism

 An older article from Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex, about the predictions at various levels of your brain of what you are likely to perceive, and how that interacts with your sensory data, resulting in your actual perception. I miss a lot over there, because it takes more intellectual work than I am willing to put in day after day. I like my intellectualism easy.  But when someone else references his stuff I go over and buckle down.  I am always gratified by what I find.  Steve Sailer called Alexander the greatest public intellectual to emerge in the 2010's. 
Corlett, Frith & Fletcher (2009) (henceforth CFF) expand on this idea and speculate on the biochemical substrates of each part of the process. They view perception as a “handshake” between top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down models predict what we’re going to see, bottom-up models perceive the real world, then they meet in the middle and compare notes to calculate a prediction error. When the prediction error is low enough, it gets smoothed over into a consensus view of reality. When the prediction error is too high, it registers as salience/surprise, and we focus our attention on the stimulus involved to try to reconcile the models. If it turns out that bottom-up was right and top-down was wrong, then we adjust our priors (ie the models used by the top-down systems) and so learning occurs.
He examines the possibilities that schizophrenia is a problem of increased bottom-up signalling with decreased top-down signalling, and autism a disorder of not tolerating even small differences between top-down and bottom-up's conclusions and refusing to shake hands.
They argue that autism is a form of aberrant precision. That is, confidence intervals are too low; bottom-up sense-data cannot handshake with top-down models unless they’re almost-exactly the same. Since they rarely are, top-down models lose their ability to “smooth over” bottom-up information. The world is full of random noise that fails to cohere into any more general plan.
In the final section, Alexander sees some weaknesses in both possibilities.

If you like that sort of thing, I think this is his followup.

Sports Gambling

Some of the sports podcasts I listen to talk about betting on games, and in particular, like to talk about combo bets that look juicy to them.  Bill Simmons is very big on this. These are the classic sucker's bets.  These disguised ripoffs are a great example of how Las Vegas makes its money. They look good, they aren't good. The argument why you should never make these bets comes from the first week of your probability and statistics course.  Or just your own doing a little arithmetic on your own.

A 70% bet looks great.  You think your football team is likely to win this matchup seven times out of ten?  Awesome.  Who wouldn't put money down on that.  Then there's this other game over here, and one of the teams is a big favorite.  LSU over Clemson seven times out of ten, right?  Maybe eight times out of ten. Put money on it!

70% times 70% = 49% is the classic example.  Less than half.  Keep thinking like that and you are out of money soon. But they keep you coming back with that misdirection. Even a really good bet at 80% gets almost down to 50% with the third repetition. Gee, THAT looks like a good bet, and THAT looks like a good bet, and the payoff is tremendous! Where's my checkbook?

If you want to bet something, just bet it.  Don't combo it with anything else. Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, King hereafter. They are sucking you in.

Revived Links

Not a Whiff of Scandal during the Obama presidency.  Plus, as I sometimes mention, it often takes time for things that have been covered to be revealed.  And not even counting the scandal of his attorney general while in office.

A long thread of fake hate crimes collected by Andy Ngo as of a year ago. The link picks up in the middle.

Hatred Enhances Your Self-Esteem.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

You Ungrateful Bastards #3

I actually do understand now why German Pagan All-Natural Origins didn't get that much word-of-mouth.  It is too long and not that well-written. But the concept was still good.  Some of the links are bad in my piece now, but if you like the concept you can read more details about how hippiedom and some aspects of Nazism come from the same roots.

Tom and Ray on Car Talk June 2006

Psych Testing Hall of Shame also June 2006.  Maybe I was more original when I first started out, even if the writing is choppier.

Review of The Good Jobs Strategy

If you missed it in the sidebar, there is this review of The Good Jobs Strategy, by Zeynep Ton by David Foster. Business decisions even outsiders and nonprofessionals can to relate to.
But, with the growth came problems. There was a lack of discipline in the stores, in how the stores communicated with headquarters, how the company selected its products, and how it communicated with suppliers. “In 2000, bills and invoices were still processed by hand, and headquarters communicated to 1134 stores via fax because there was no companywide email.” In 2008, two senior IT executives (newly hired from Walmart) concluded that Home Depot’s IT systems were about where Walmart’s had been in 1991. In summary, HD had become “a classic example of a service company that did not fully appreciate the role of operations in making customers and investors happy…Operations are all those factory-like activities that a business has to carry out in order to provide whatever it is that it sells. ..In a retail store, for example, operations involves things like having the right product in the right place, having a fast checkout, and having a clean store.” Zeynep Ton says that internal measurement systems often don’t focus on such matters–at one retailer she worked with, “Twenty percent of the (store manager’s) score had to do with the store’s customer interactions.” In this chain, “mystery shoppers” would score the store on things like how the employees greeted customers and made eye contact. But, she notes, “kindness or friendliness won’t make up for operational incompetence. ..It is hard for your dry cleaner to make you happy if you can’t wear your favorite suit to an important interview because they didn’t get it cleaned on time.”
I have a pet peeve that the customer satisfaction surveys that get sent out for every oil change and emergency-room visit are useless documents.  We have them from time-to-time at my hospital. Stop and think for a moment what kind of questions one would ask customers at an involuntary psychiatric facility, and what the meaning of any statistics would be, with the mixed data of people who got better and those who are still psychotic or personality disordered.  We thought we would do better when we did exit interviews instead, because trained professionals could make the necessary distinctions between responses.  What went wrong there is that half the people interviewing were incompetent folk who couldn't be fired because they were state employees that no one had bothered to make a paper trail about. This was seen as a good spot to put them out to pasture, where there would be no visible damage.

Then, finally, when we had the data from the competent interviewers, that might have told us something useful about how we treated customers and what we could do about it, we simply ignored it.

I'll Never Find Another You

We did not sing this in the group I had in highschool, called "Lavender." But listening to it today on the radio, I see that we should have.  Perfect for us. This is the sort of harmonising I do standing around in the back of the church on Sunday.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

They'll Let You Know

CS Lewis never took a newspaper and chuckled if something important happened everyone would let you know anyway.  I have only followed the news on impeachment that slipped in while people were writing or talking about something else.  I occasionally listen to Scott Adams.  The link headlines over at Maggie's often include some impeachment news. People email me things. I'm not seeing the point.  We have known for months what everyone's lines are and what will happen.  The issue is how will all this maneuvering play out in the elections, which is just guesswork at this point. All sides think they are playing a killer strategy for 2020.

While looking for something else I saw this link to Andrew McCarthy.  I trust McCarthy.  He is overcautious about falling into any optimism that any of this works in favor of conservatives in general.  He knows the relevant law and the usual practices of agencies. I don't know that he is any good at predicting how well any of the politicising will work, but I don't mind about that.  We'll know soon enough.  So this will be my main understanding of the situation for a bit.  He asks "why" many times.  Then he answers his own questions.

The Field Guide to the 15 Real Nations of Britain:

Reposted from 2007.  This didn't get quite enough hits to make the top 100 but I have liked it over the years, so it qualifies under the "You Ungrateful Bastards" category. It was not fresh when I first saw it, so it may be 20 years old now.


This is not my composition, but one posted at Ship of Fools years ago. I’ve kept it for years and thought I’d give it a wider audience. The author, Ken Brown, identified himself in the comments. I conclude he is British, not an American or other outsider writing.

(1) West of Scotland - the Western Isles, Argyll, the Clyde and it's firth, those parts of the Highlands that drain west. Think of Scotch mist, whisky, moorland, Gaelic (pronounced "the garlic"), poetry, deserts wi' windows (i.e. vast housing projects with no jobs), deep-fried Mars-bars, and schism. The friendliest people in Britain apart from the inhabitants of Sheffield. Also the most violent, apart from the inhabitants of Nottingham. These are the ancestors of the Scots of Nova Scotia, half of Appalachia, the great Plains, and Texas. You can tell by the place-names: Houston is a suburb of Glasgow, Calgary a little village on Mull.
Industries: shipbuilding, steel, fish-farming, Robert Burns, and emigration.
Capital: Glasgow.
Main outside influences: Ireland, the USA, the western Isles
Religion: football.
National Sport: religious bigotry and apparently random thuggery.

(2) East of Scotland - Everything north or East of (1) above. A dour region for dour folk. No-one has any fun (the Edinburgh festival might look fun but it actually consists of Glasgow promoters putting on English shows for foreign tourists. to American tourists) The posh people speak with English public-school accents (Brits can think of Tam Dalyell), the working classes speak a broad Scots nearer to Norse than English. Or so it seems to one who is more familiar with the sing-song voice of Glasgow.
Industries: law, medicine, oil-rigs, coal, trawlers, and turnips.
Capital: Edinburgh
Main outside influences: the North Sea
Religion: money
National Sport: trying to be better than the west of Scotland

(3) Borders - all of Scotland south of Glasgow, most of the English county of Northumberland, and all of Westmorland and Cumberland and south west to the Lake District and north Lancashire. Hill country, moorland, with a long, noble and bloody tradition of independence. These were the main ancestors (along with the Ulster folk who Americans call Scots-Irish) of the other half of Appalachia, who later settled most everything south and west of Kentucky, and it shows. Hatfield is a Border name; McCoy a West-scots name. Get the picture?
Industries: fudge, sheep and liberalism.
Capital: Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peebles
Main outside influences: none since the Vikings: people leave there, they don't go there.
Religion: rugby union
National Sport: reiving (AVI note. That means cattle-rustling. See Appalachia & the settling of the American West, above.)
(4) Anglo-Walia - Wales that speaks English. Defined by language, not borders. On paper Anglo-Wales it is about 80% of Wales, in the papers about 20%. Shirley Bassey, Dylan Thomas, Max Boyce, and male-voice choirs, names of geological eras with no land animals, very large rugby players.
Industries: Coal, steel, the usual. All long gone, as usual.

Capital: Cardiff
Main outside influences: William Webb Ellis, George Whitefield
Religion: once Methodism but these days more likely fish & chips.

National Sport: Rugby union
(5) Cymry - Wales that speaks Welsh. The original British, and if you ever visit there, don't you dare forget it. Divided eternally and completely between north-Walian and south-Walian, but as an English speaker I can't tell them apart.
Industries: Sheep, slate, and schoolteaching.
Capital: Aberystwyth. It should be Machynlleth, but no other bugger can pronounce it.
Main outside influences: The Holy Land. Wales is full of towns with names like Bethel and Bethesda. (As is the part of the USA that the Welsh took iron working to)
Religion: Druidism
National Sport: cottage-burning
(6) Cornwall and the far South-West - the bit that sticks out of the bottom-left-hand-side of your map. The climate is wonderful, the scenery attractive, the wildlife is tame, the mines are worked out, and the people are unemployed.
Capital: Exeter. Exeter isn't actually in Cornwall, but then these are colonial boundaries.
Industries: mines (once upon a time), fishing (fished out), smuggling (long ago over), showing tourists round gardens
Main outside influences: Wales, Brittany, the Atlantic Ocean

Religion: Traditionally “nonconformist.” These days inedible foods are worshiped.
National Sport: Nominally hurling, but really it’s filling out welfare forms.
(7) North-East of England - Tyneside and the denser parts of Northumberland, County Durham, and the parts of Yorkshire within spitting distance of the river Tees. Eeh, it's cold oop North. If you can see the Penshore Monument you know you're in the north-east. Tyneside is the British equivalent of the Ruhr, except it didn't make it through the 1950s. The place was tooled up to build the ships to fight the First World War - hulls, engines, guns, armour, ammunition, lasted to the second, then spent a generation as the land of Get Carter and the Likely Lads.
Capital: Newcastle
Main outside influences: Norway
Industries: once upon a time: steel, coal, ships, armaments. These days: insurance and making TV documentaries about the North.
National Sport: football (again)
Religion: the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement. (Now, like most minor deities, mostly worshiped from afar)
(8) North-West of England - traditional Lancashire & adjacent parts of a few other counties. Everyone in the south thinks they are desperately poor and half-starving. In fact, apart from Liverpool (which really is totally broke) and some decaying inner suburbs of a few other large towns, the north-west is quite a prosperous place. Also a diverse place. There are towns here where the local accent is completely different from the next town maybe only 4 or 5 miles away. The north-west is the only part of England outside London that ever nearly succeeded in being cool - Manchester & Liverpool used to take alternating goes as the pop capital of the world. But now all they have left is football. Most of the ships that people from the rest of the Old World used to travel to North America departed from Liverpool. First the slave ships, then when the bottom was shot out of that market by the Haitian revolution and the Evangelical Revival, they converted to emigrants.
Capital: Manchester, England's Second City.

Industries: Once upon a time cotton, these days just about everything.
Main outside influences: Ireland, India
Religion: Refusing to attend church. Becoming Islamic.
National Sport: football (it gets boring, doesn't it?)
(9) Yorkshire - Real Yorkshire isn't quite the same as Yorkshire on the map because it is a state of mind more than a place. Being Yorkshire involves thinking you are better than anyone else, so much better in fact that you never bother to tell them. If you find yourself in a picturesque, if gritty, stone-build village on the edge of the moors and all the doors are shut - you're probably in Yorkshire. Except for Sheffield of course. Sheffield is so much unlike Yorkshire that it hardly fits here at all.
Capital: York
Main outside influences: Outside? Influence? When ah were a lad, they 'ad no truck with them there outsiders, and the only influence they ever saw was aunt Maisie's nice cup of tea.
Industries: moaning about soft southerners
Religion: cricket
National Sport: horse-racing
(10) East Anglia - the big bulge on the east coast just north of London, including the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire, along with a few other little ones no-one can ever remember. The flat part of England. For our purposes we have to add in rural Lincolnshire and some of the flatter parts of the east midlands.
Capital(s): Cambridge for education, Norwich for bad TV shows.

Industries: keeping unfeasibly large numbers of poultry in sheds big enough to see from orbit
Main outside influences: the Netherlands
Religion: once upon a time a hot-bed of puritanism and non-conformism. The Pilgrim Fathers came from Boston in Lincolnshire (Plymouth was just a place they stopped off on the way to get a last pint of decent beer) as did Oliver Cromwell.

National Sports: Cricket, football, lotteries.
(11) London London is, er, London. The default city of the modern world. The Great Wen. The Heart of Darkness. The Smoke. The place the banks keep your money. Like all other great cities it evokes a completely different set of images in those who live there than those who don't. Tourists think of Tower Bridge, fog, beefeaters, helpful cabbies, and the Changing of the Guard. Locals think of Battersea Power Station, expensive beer, the Tube Map, 300 bus routes, and endless conversations about house prices. Oh those endless, endless conversations about house prices. People from London owned the ships that people from the rest of Britain and Europe used to travel to North America, but they never went there themselves. You'd have to get off the housing ladder if you wanted to emigrate. And there might not be a tube.
Capital: London, of course
Industries: money
Main outside influences: Ireland, the West Indies
Religion: desperate fun
National Sport: reading late-night bus timetables and arguing about the tube map.
(12) The Motorised Banana - imagine a large banana-shaped piece of land to the north and west of London, curving from Cambridge in the north-east to somewhere around Basingstoke in the south-west, bulging out west along the Thames Valley to Oxford, and taking Milton Keynes and the outer suburbs of London on the way. This is the most prosperous part of Britain, and also the part that makes most sense to Americans, as nearly everyone lives in suburbs, shops in malls, and drives cars.
Capital: Heathrow Airport

Main Outside Influences: London
Industries: commuting to London, driving round the M25
National Sport: five-a-side football, driving round the M25
Religion: television, driving round the M25
(13) South -Central England and the South Coast A triangle whose outlying edges are Exeter, Chichester, and Oxford. Rolling green meadows, villages of thatched houses, little cathedral towns nestled in the folding hills, quiet country pubs - you've seen the Miss Marple programs. Picturebook England.
Capital(s): it really ought to be Southhampton, the only big city in the region, but the spiritual home of the place is Bournemouth, which is about equally composed of retired gentlewomen in distressed circumstances and young thugs tanked up on cheap cider.
National Food: Cream Teas
Industries: none
Main outside influences: the Isle of Wight

Nodding at empty churches
(14) The Real South East - the bulge south of London: Kent, Surrey and Sussex, together with the outer suburbs of South London and adjacent parts of Hampshire. On the main routes from London to everywhere else. Combines really quite downmarket fading naval or port towns like Dover or Chatham, or Portsmouth; with vast swathes of exurbia posing as countryside, such as the huge Mega-Village One that has metastatised just north of Brighton.
Capital: Brighton
Industries: transport, scenery, commuting, education, trying to be near to London without being part of London.
Main outside influences: France, the rest of Europe
National Sport: Sport? In a region who's best-known football team is Brighton & Hove Albion? Come off it!

Religion: None
(15) The Rest The rest of Britain is all those parts that don't fit into the 14 categories defined above.
Capital: Birmingham. People who have seen both Birmingham and Akron, Ohio, usually say they find Akron more charming.
Religion: the car
Other interesting facts: none known. No-one likes Birmingham. Except people who live there, and as no-one else ever goes there no-one knows why they like it.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Update on State Capacity Libertarianism

I posted on this new topic of Tyler Cowan's almost two week's ago.  I have seen other commentary since then.  Law and Liberty had this mostly-negative take on the idea.
But my largest disagreement is that Tyler misses what is most problematic about modern libertarianism. In my view, modern libertarianism has too narrow a view of social harm and too limited a role for government in encouraging mediating institutions that help ameliorate such harms. Tyler underscores a certain obtuseness on this point by professing not to be able to understand the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism, except that classical liberalism was a 19th-century philosophy suited to solving the problems of its times, but not ours.
It's a thoughtful response. 

Howard Zinn and History From Below

 Contemporary historian Ron Radosh has an interesting piece about the influential Howard Zinn and his People's History over at the Law and Liberty site.  I liked an early point very much, that while Zinn is identified as one doing History From Below, that is mostly an affectation. As the essay wore on I think Radosh hit some repetitive and trite material, but the essay in general remains solid.

Zinn was not an innovator in historical commentary, he was very much a user of the current emerging fashion in writing history. He was like a young man with an unerring eye for the clothing that would most attract the female gaze and end in seduction.  Such do not care about shirts or ties, but about getting women into bed. If another shirt or tie works better next year, the old will be discarded.  Zinn only cared about a percentage of the human beings “from below” – those who suited his political purpose. One does not study industrial workers by focusing solely on unions, though that is a part; one does not study immigrants by noting only their initial housing conditions in cities, though that is a part; one does not study distributed power and authority by seeing only the abuses of power, though those can be a window of understanding. In all cases, a narrowing of focus allows one to choose only the examples that support one’s Point of view. Most historians attempt to rise above this and consider possible leaks in the buckets they are carrying.  Yet all narrowings increase vulnerability to manipulation.

I am very much a fan of “history from below.” So were a great many of Howard Zinn’s critics.  The link provides good references to this, for those who want to see the critiques in more detail
This is a topic of the moment because of the controversy around the 1619 Project of the NYTimes.  I have not read it, nor do I intend to.  I have some interest in what people I respect have to say about it, good and bad.  At present most of what is said is from two sources: other historians and the conservative press. Neither are complimentary.  However, I assume there are some things worth knowing in even very bad histories, and there may even be sections or approaches that will prove valuable over time.  For now, some pieces have leaked out, likely the worst bits, and I can apply what moderate amount of history I know to those.  I know more colonial history than other American periods, though I have been trying to gradually rectify that.  Most recently I am listening to historian Lindsay Graham’s* podcasts about each presidential election, “Wicked Game” and feel confident in a simple declaration. If the American Revolution were actually, truly, wink-wink about preserving slavery because the founders and elites knew that the British were on the road to outlawing it, then no presidential election from Washington to Polk makes the least bit of coherent sense. (I doubt that clarity is going to suddenly emerge from that hypothesis in the next few weeks about Pierce and Buchanan, either.)

Slavery was the dominant issue in most elections, though tariffs and federal power were also common rallying points. To suggest that the elites (or the middle class and poor) had substantial agreement underneath it all, merely jockeying for the spoils of it is simply absurd. If that were the case then there were acres of compromise where they could have sat and picnicked together.

* No, a different Lindsay Graham

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Online, attacks on groups of people are treated differently than attacks on individuals. Granting that there are not always clear distinctions, and that sometimes a criticism of a group can be somewhat disguised, how do we think the main figures in political and social debate divide on this? Does Donald Trump criticise groups, or focus on individuals? Lots of individuals, or a few key ones?  What about Obama and Hillary Clinton? What does the conservative press tend to do?  CNN and the Washington Post?

I don't want to prejudice the discussion, but I think tendencies online descend from the conventions of writing for some people and the conventions of speech for others. 

Not Knowing

I was given The Man From The Train for Christmas, even though true crime is not usually my thing.  Bill James is usually a baseball writer I have admired since the early 1980’s, who also turns out to have an interest in true crime.  I read his Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence a few years ago. This was largely devoted to understanding which crimes capture the popular imagination, and why.  In true baseball statistician fashion, James put up charts and spreadsheets and devised a formula to predict what crimes would be most written about.  Along the way, he gave opinions on how the popular suppositions of guilt were often wrong, and why.  He was thorough in reviewing both the crime scene evidence and the popular media accounts after. James is quite convincing on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, for example, that her parents were entirely innocent of the murder and explaining why people thought so anyway despite the lack of evidence.

The Man From The Train continues in this vein, assembling evidence from dozens of murders from 1897-1912 and connecting some as likely to have been committed by the same person.  Those familiar with James’s baseball writing will see the same approach to the data:  What things should we be looking for to answer our questions?  How reliable is our information, and in particular, where could people now and a century ago be easily misled by? What patterns do we see? Are there other possible explanations, or confounding factors?  Also quite usual for him is to ask What are the dogs that didn’t bark? Baseball questions are a good grounding for thinking in general.

He got started on the quest by noting that the Villisca Axe Murders seem to have been committed by an experienced murderer who had made himself in multiple ways difficult to discover afterward.  From that observation he wondered if he had killed before and if there were other murders that showed similar features.  He found many, with varying degrees of certainty, but very possibly over a hundred victims across the country. 
So, recommended if you like following that sort of deductive reasoning and can endure the gruesome details that have to be discussed.

Yet it is the second theme of the book which interests me more in terms of discussion here.  At every stop until the last few incidents, the police, private detectives, and townspeople blamed local people for the murder.  In most cases the suspects were soon released for lack of evidence, though they might live under a cloud the rest of their lives.  Yet in others, innocent people were imprisoned and even executed, by the state or by lynching. Once a plausible explanation was in place, it was difficult or even impossible for people to discard it, no matter what the contrary evidence.  If the police believed the motive was robbery, they would stick to this even when nothing was taken and valuable items were left untouched. Once the townspeople believed it was revenge, or a love triangle, or an ex-con who lived nearby, they could not shake that idea and kept reverting to it, even when investigators or courts provided definitive evidence that the accused could not have been there.

James notes grimly that for vulnerable and disliked people, especially if they were black, it was best not to have murders happen nearby, as they might be seized, accused and executed regardless of evidence. 

What was fascinating about this is that occasionally some person early in the investigation would announce that it was an unknown madman who had killed and left, and put that story out, but the need to catch someone and punish them was so great that this correct assessment would be buried under the avalanche of evidence of people making up evidence in order to associate themselves with the story. Neighbors would remember hearing an argument earlier in the day that never occurred, or profess to recognize a lantern left at the scene as belonging to a person across town. In one early case nearly 20 people claimed to identify a particular lantern as belonging to an adjoining farm, yet no one involved had the presence of mind to ask “Really?  How many lanterns from this town would I recognize?  Would I even recognize my own if it weren’t hanging in its usual place?”

In a few cases, even the policeman or detective who had initially declared the murder was the work of a drifter who killed and then hopped on the nearby train would get swept up in the local focus on a particular suspect. In our discussions here of narrative triumphing over facts, it is frightening to note that even a correct explanation, if it leaves out enough elements as to be unsatisfying, will be rejected in favor of an obviously false one that at least checks off enough boxes. Towns were unable to accept the idea that it was a random drifter who was quickly out of reach. Someone must be found.

There was likely pressure from other directions as well.  There is always a market to get rid of unpopular people in the neighborhood, especially those with a history of violence, and even a bad excuse is often enough.  When rewards are offered, no one is going to collect if no one is convicted. Associating crime with other disliked behaviors also gives us the illusion we can be safe. Well, she certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered, but it’s not safe to run around with men that aren’t your husband, is it?

I do wonder if the pattern had been noticed earlier, so that the ground was laid for people to accept that a roving killer of set pattern was using the trains across whole regions to escape at night, they would find tying themselves into that story sufficient. There were many incidents where noticing the similarities to other murders was possible, and a few where it is remarkable that two murders of entire families fifty miles and two months apart were not associated – usually because people had so thoroughly bought into a false explanation for the first one that they could not consider an alternative.  It might have prevented some of the murders if people knew what to be alert for.  At minimum, it may have prevented the executions of some innocents.

So. Apply this same unfortunate characteristic of we humans to our explanations of why political opponents act as they do, and what the motives of foreign leaders are. We refuse to not know, to hold a question aside for insufficient evidence to answer.  We will answer, even if wrong. Would we be impossibly anxious and distracted without this feature, unable to get the firewood gathered or the children out to play?