Saturday, August 30, 2003
In his novel Ape and Essence (1948), the writer Aldoux Huxley--himself an intellectual of no small repute--comments on the fallacies into which many intellectuals fall when they become involved in politics.
In the field of politics the equivalent of a theorem is a perfectly disciplined army; of a sonnet or picture, a police state under a dictatorship. The Marxist calls himself scientific and to this claim the Fascist adds another: he is the poet--the scientific poet--of a new mythology. Both are justified in their pretensions; for each applies to human situations the procedures which have proved effective in the laboratory and the ivory tower. They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard an inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection...the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence.
Previous Worth Pondering
Friday, August 29, 2003
SORRY, IT'S OUR POLICY
Waiting for a plane at the Atlanta airport today, I stopped at a restaurant for a snack. It was also a bar, and a couple at a nearby table ordered drinks. The waitress asked them for ID to prove they were over 21--nothing unusual about that, except they looked to me like they were both in their mid-50s. There's no way they could conceivably have been less than 45.
The waitress obviously didn't think of this idea all on her own. She was almost certainly following some kind of no-exceptions policy which was established by the management. And the policy, in turn, was quite likely motivated by some kind of draconian provisions in well-intentioned laws or regulations.
Over the last several years, it seems that people are increasingly being put in positions in which they are required to execute policies without consulting their common sense. This seems to have been most prevalent in the public schools, but the corporate sector is clearly not exempt.
What does it do to a person when, day after day, they are required to do things that they know make no sense? What does it do to a society when millions of people are put in this kind of position? Doesn't it lead to cynicism, to a pervasive "I just work here" kind of attitude? Isn't it destructive of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity--and respect for legitimate authority--on all levels?
Laws, regulations, and politicies have collateral effects. Unfortunately, these effects rarely seem to be considered when they are put in place
Friday, August 22, 2003
REACTIONS TO THE BLACKOUT
Some of the comments made in the aftermath of the blackout are kind of disturbing. For example, Mindles H Dreck was listening to an NPR station, and reports that several callers said things like:
I'm glad when these things happen, it teaches us a lesson
We deserve this, because we're so wasteful
Right. Let's consider a woman in labor for several hours--in a hospital without air conditioning, with minimal lighting, with no idea where her husband and children are in the chaos outside. She deserves this? You don't know anything about her, Mr NPR listener; how dare you assert that she "deserves this"?
It's a reaction that is exceptionally mean-spirited. It's an especially hypocritical form of sadism--the enjoyment of the suffering of others while using some form of "redemption through suffering" as an excuse. And it that is a combination that is fairly common in history, for instance, in the use of religion as a justification for inflicting pain. One might expect to find comments about the like those above on the extreme fringes of the survivalist religious right--but, in practice, such reactions seem to be occurring mostly on the left.
ACCIDENTAL TRUTH AND THE ENEMIES OF CIVILIZATION
An NPR commentator evidently slipped up by referring to Palestinian terrorists as "terrorists"--but she realized she had said the wrong thing and substituted "militants" instead. You can listen here.
NPR seems to me to be doing its best to help erase the line between civilization and barbarism. There is no question in my mind that the posture taken by NPR and certain other media organizations is contributing to the persistence and escalation of terrorism, specifically including such actions as this week's bus bombing in Jerusalem.
You might want to bookmark the above audio clip. Then, if you ever feel an urge to contribute money to NPR, you can listen to it again. It should be an effective antidote.
(hat tip: LGF)
Thursday, August 21, 2003
INTERNET ATTACK HITS RAILROAD
A particularly troubling aspect of the current Internet virus/worm attack is the degree to which the infection has reached the internal and operational systems of major organizations. Having your PC crash when you're trying to do word processing is one thing. But it's something else entirely when the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles has to shut down its offices--or when Air Canada isn't able to perform check-ins.
And on Wednesay, an infection disrupted CSX Railroad's entire 23,000 mile network. According to the AP article, ten Amtrak trains were affected in the morning. Trains between Pittsburgh and Florence, S.C. were halted because of dark signals and one regional Amtrak train from Richmond, Va., to Washington and New York was delayed for more than two hours. But this passenger traffic is a very small proportion of CSX's total business, which is mainly conerned with freight--and freight trains, of course, were also affected.
In a press release, CSX said that "Contrary to initial reports, the signal system for train operations was not the source of the problem. Rather, the virus disrupted the CSXT telecommunications network upon which certain systems rely, including signal, dispatching and other operating systems. So it's not clear if the signals really went dark--it may be that the signal system per se continued operating but that the train dispatchers in Jacksonville lost access to the information they needed for train routing. In either case, railroad operations were shut down. (They are now restored albeit with some lingering delays.)
There are many valid reasons for a company to connect its internal systems to the Internet--CSX, for example, has been very innovative with its ShipCSX program, which allows customer to electronically plan, execute, and trace their shipments; also to pay for them. But such connections must be done with great care. Firewalls, for example, should be in place between the external and the intenal systems. Failure modes of software. And the more mission-critical the system, the more care needs to be used.
It will be interesting to see whose systems are next.
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
BLACKOUTS AND CELLPHONES
The New York Times is concerned that many people were unable to get cell phone connections during the blackout. There seem to be two major causes for this. One is simply peak loading: a cell can only handle a certain number of calls, and crises of all types tend to generate telephone traffic. The second is more worrying. Evidently, many cells have limited electrical backup facilities--they may have batteries, but no on-site generator to take over as the battery begins to run down. (Landline phone services always have generators, as well as batteries, installed at the switching centers. These are relatively few in number compared to the number of cell sites) The NYT editorial says: "The wireless industry considers it prohibitively difficult and costly to provide backup generators at all of the many hundreds of cellphone transmission sites in a city like New York."
They do not, however, talk about one of the reasons why it is difficult and costly to provide such generators. In most cities--and I bet New York is no exception--getting the permit for a permanant generator installation (and its associated fuel storage tank) is a slow and painful process--largely because of environmental concerns about the fuel storage.
There needs to be a fast-track permitting procedure for companies who are installing large numbers of relatively small backup generators. Perhaps there could be a one-time review of a standard design and set of installation standards, which could then be replicated without further review as needed.
The NYT editorial, predictably, calls for regulation as a solution. They don't consider the possiblity that overly-complex regulation might be part of the problem.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
JERUSALEM, AUGUST 19, 2003
Palestinian terrorists murdered 18 people on a bus in Jerusalem today. The victims included several children. According to news reports, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have claimed "credit" for this atrocity.
From a moral standpoint, these terrorists had co-conspirators in the United States and in Europe. I'm talking about those who, for the last several years, have excused, justified, and even romanticized terrorism. I'm talking about those who have directed unremitting and unreasoning streams of vitriol against Israel.
Had the West maintained a unified solid front against terrorism, it is likely that acts such as these would have become less frequent--even possible that a meaningful peace in the Middle East might have already been achieved. But the sympathy for terrorism--combined with open hostility to Israel on the part of certain highly-visible elites--has encouraged acts of terror, by holding out the implicit prospect that they would be rewarded.
There is blood on the hands of a lot of people tonight. Certain Hollywood entertainers, who are so concerned about being "trendy" that they don't care what the trend is about. Certain writers and scholars, so lost in words that they no longer see what is in front of their faces. Certain journalists who cannot even bring themselves to call things by their right names, who refer to a terrorist as a "militant" or a "fighter." Certain "humanitarians" who have lost all concern for humanity.
I wonder if any of these people understand their responsibility for what has just happened. I doubt it.
UPDATE: Donald Sensing makes an interesting observation about the media's comparative treatment of the Jerusalem attack and the Baghdad attack. As reported in The Washington Post:
Baghdad: "Attack on U.N. Shows Shift in Terror's Focus" (italics added).
The massive truck bomb that devastated U.N. headquarters here today signaled a dramatic escalation in terrorism. . . .
Jerusalem: "Suicide Bomber Strikes Jerusalem Bus, Kills 18" (italics added).
A Palestinian bomber triggered a massive, fiery explosion tonight aboard a crowded double-cabin bus . . . .
As the Rev Sensing points out: If you kill adults working for the UN, an overtly political organization, you're a terrorist, but if you kill Israeli women and babies, you're merely a "bomber."
Sunday, August 17, 2003
MORE ON THE BLACKOUT
The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) has all kinds of information up at their web site. They have evidently been working for quite some time to present information about the grid in a manner which is accessible to non-technical people; see Explaining Power System Operation to Non-Engineers, which uses an analogy with a tandem bicycle.
Saturday, August 16, 2003
POWER OUTAGE STORY
This is too good not to pass along.
Writing in The Washington Post, Joel Achenbach tells a story from an earlier power outage (an ice storm that left many homes without power for several days). A "highly educated lawyer" was astonished to see that his neighbor had made a cup of hot coffee. "How did you do that?" he asked incredulously. She replied that she had boiled water on her gas stove. The lawyer said that he had a gas stove too, but it needed electricity to provide a spark for the ignition. "I used a match," she explained.
As Achenbach says: In a state of nature, this man would be eaten alive by field mice.
Thursday, August 14, 2003
REFUSING TO FACE REALITY
In states across American, graduating seniors are facing high-school exit exams--and in many cases are flunking them, even though they had thought they were doing well in school. Here, for example, is the story of the valedictorian who didn't graduate. She failed the math section of the state's exit exam--even though she had gotten an "A" in her Algebra II class.
The reaction of school administrators, when faced with events like this one, falls into a pretty predictable pattern. Their first instinct isn't to reassess their quality of instruction--their first instinct is to attack the test.
Suppose that the kind of people who become school administrators became airline pilots instead:
CO-PILOT: Captain, we seem to be very low on fuel.
PILOT: *$%! fuel gauges...can't trust those things.
CO-PILOT: And, Captain, the radar shows a thunderstorm cell, right ahead
PILOT: Still lots of bugs in radar technology
Of course, we'd never permit people who think like this to fly commercial airliners. We just trust them to run our schools.
(hat tip: Joanne Jacobs and Kimberly Swygert)
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Varenius has uncovered this quote from G K Chesterton:
I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid. (from Illustrated London News, 6-3-22.)
Chesterton deserves a far wider readership than he has. Almost every paragraph sparkles with ideas and insights. He is normally thought of as a "religious" writer, but this should be interpreted in the broadest possible way.
Previous Worth Pondering
Friday, August 08, 2003
MISSING THE POINT
Dr David Hill says that talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh don't need to worry about competition from bloggers--that he doesn't believe that "blogging or any specific bloggers will match Limbaugh’s record-setting pace for gathering influence in the political process."
It may well be that no individual blogger is likely to match the audience of a popular talk show like that of Mr Limbaugh (although even this is questionable if you look at the audience trends for someone like Glenn Reynolds.) But blogs are like potato chips--you don't eat (or read) just one. The whole nature of the medium encourages people to draw information and analysis from multiple sources. Although serious bloggers work to attract an audience, they don't attempt to control it in the same sense that a TV or radio station wants to discourage you from turning the dial--indeed, they facilitate this "dial-turning," in the form of links. Hence, the influence of blogging must be considered as a collective, distributed phenomenon.
This shows up, for example, in the area of subject matter expertise. An individual blogger may not be able to pull together research across a broad set of topics, as can a major magazine or a well-funded talk show host. But pick any specific area of knowledge--law, economics, military affairs, engineering, higher education--and will probably find a blogger who is a serious expert in the field--who knows far more about the field than is likely to be known by any professional journalist (even one armed with extensive staff research).
There's a possible analogy with the evolution of the computer industry. When personal computers were introduced commercially, many corporate IT managers were unimpressed. The Apple and IBM PCs of the time were, after all, pretty unimpressive compared with large IBM mainframes. It was difficult for people who had made their reputations in the mainframe arena to take them seriously. But, as it turned out, the limitations of the PCs didn't matter all that much in the scheme of things. PCs had tremendous influence on the shape of computing because there were cheap enough that there could be a lot of them, they could be widely distributed, and they were accessible on a human level.
It's not clear how blogging, and web publishing in general, will evolve. I don't think they're going to displace traditional media, but I do think that they're likely to have a significant influence on it. There's nothing eternal about the current structure of the media. It's a result of a very specific constellation of factors, many of them economic, technical, and regulatory. Change the factors--and the Internet certainly changes them--and the structure will change as well.
Donald Sensing also has some thoughts on this topic.
Sunday, August 03, 2003
THE WORLD BANK AND IRAQ
World Bank President James Wolfensohn has qualms about lending money to Iraq. According to the Toronto Star, "...the lending institution still must decide what constitutes a legally recognized government before it can lend money to Iraq."
"Clearly a constitution and an elected government would constitute a recognized government, but what do we do in the meantime?" Wolfensohn told a news conference. "It's a subject that needs interpretation."
But, as the indispensable Ralph Peters points out, there seemed to be no such concerns about Saddam Hussein's regime. "I don't recall that Saddam's regime was elected. Or that it governed by a constitution. Yet that terror-state was recognized as legitimate by the world's diplomats and international bankers. Every slithering, interest-bearing one of them. And now Iraq's interim Governing Council doesn't deserve the level of recognition accorded Saddam Hussein? Saddam seized power in a coup, slaughtered his opponents, started successive wars of aggression, pursued weapons of mass destruction and never held a single honest election. But he was just fine with foreign ministries, the United Nations and world financial institutions. Yet Iraq's representative Governing Council lacks legitimacy as it seeks to build democracy? And Iraq doesn't qualify for reconstruction loans?"
Indeed, the World Bank says on its own web site that: "Iraq is a founding member of the World Bank, though it has been in non-accrual status since 1990 due to non-payment of loans." Note well--due to non-payment of loans, rather than to any concerns about the legitimacy of the regime.
As Peters goes on to say: "The one shining truth (well, tarnished, actually) that I learned working in Washington and visiting foreign capitals was simply this: Nobody stops to think.
(hat tip: Instapundit)
Saturday, August 02, 2003
BEING MR BULTITUDE
What is the consciousness of a non-human animal like? What would it be like to actually be a dog, or a wolf, or a horse? The question is probably unanswerable; nevertheless, it's fascinating to speculate about.
In his novel That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis tries to get inside the head of a pet bear:
"Mr Bultitude's mind was as furry and unhuman in shape as his body. He did not remember, as a man in his situation would have remembered, the provincial zoo from which he had escaped during a fire, nor his first snarling and terrified arrival at the Manor, nor the slow stages whereby he had learned to love and trust its inhabitants. He did not know that he loved and trusted them now. He did not know that they were people, nor that he was a bear...everything that is represented by the words I and Me and Thou was absent from his mind. When Mrs Maggs gave him a tin of golden syrup, as she did every Sunday morning, he did not recognize either a giver or a recipient. Goodness occurred and he tasted it. And that was all. Hence his loves might, if you wished, all be described as cupboard loves: food and warmth, hands that caressed, voices tha reassured, were their objects. But if by a cupboard love you meant something cold or calculating you would be quite misunderstanding the real quality of the beast's sensations. He was no more like a human egoist than he was like a human altruist. There was no prose in his life. The appetencies which a human mind might disdain as cupboard loves were for him quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being, infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise. One of our race, if plunged back for a moment in the warm, trembling, iridescent pool of that pre-Adamite consciousness, would have emerged believing that he had grasped the Absolute...Sometimes there returns to us from infancy the memory of a nameless delight or terror, attached to any dlightful or dreadful thing, a potent adjective floating in a nounless void, a pure quality. At such moments we have experience of the shallows of that pool. But fathoms deeper than any memory can take us, right down in the central warmth and dimness, the bear lived all its life."
The entire book, by the way, is highly recommended.