Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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betsy's page
one hand clapping
a schoolyard blog
joy of knitting
lead and gold
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little miss attila
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a constrained vision
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Saturday, June 28, 2003  

Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well...Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted...We refuse to believe that the "civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.

This from the incisive writer and former soldier Ralph Peters (in his book Beyond Terror.)

8:31 PM

Thursday, June 26, 2003  

It used to be that there were some things you could count on. Cats and dogs don't get along. Itchy and Scratchy will continue trying to kill each other. Hungry lions do not lie down peaceably with lambs. And the rail and trucking industries will continue their long feud--particularly in their Washington lobbying.

But today's Washington Post reports that the American Trucking Association and the Association of American Railroads have called a truce of sorts in their lobbying activities. In particular, the ATA will (at least for now) drop efforts to win significant length and weight increases for trucks permitted on highways. The deal was evidently brokered in part by United Parcel Service, which is itself a major trucker and also the largest single customer of the railroads, to the tune of $1.8 billion per year.

7:06 PM

Wednesday, June 25, 2003  
ORWELL'S 100th

Today is George Orwell's 100th birthday. (Orwell was a pen name, of course; his real name was Eric Blair.) In honor of the occasion, here's Orwell on political language:

"...it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." (Politics and the English Language, 1946.)

If you've only read Orwell's popular novels (1984, Animal Farm), you owe it to yourself to read the essays as well. The writing is vivid; the thought process is illuminating.

11:18 AM

Sunday, June 22, 2003  

Professor "X" teaches at a prominent private university. Recently, he taught a course on "Topics in Theory and Criticism." He thought the class was going poorly--it was difficult to get the students to talk about the material--but on the last day of class, he received an ovation.

"I didn't understand what was going on until a few days later," he writes (in an e-mail to Critical Mass.) "Several students came to see me during office hours to tell me that they had never taken a course quite like this one before. What they had expected was a template-driven, "here's how we apply ****ist theory to texts" approach, because that is how all of their classes are taught in the English department here...Not a single one of these students had ever read a piece of theory or criticism earlier than the 1960s (with the exception of one who had been asked to read a short excerpt from Marx.) They simply had never been asked to do anything other than "imitate without understanding.""

In university humanities departments, theory is increasingly dominant--not theory in the traditional scholarly and scientific sense of a tentative conceptual model, always subject to revision, but theory in the sense of an almost religious doctrine, accepted on the basis of assertion and authority. To quote Professor "X" once again: "Graduate "education" in a humanities discipline like English seems to be primarily about indoctrination and self-replication."

The experiences of Professor "X" are far from unique. Professor "Y," chair of an English department, describes his experiences in interviewing for a new job (also in an e-mail to Critical Mass). "How truthful could I afford to be about my growing dissatisfaction with theory? Should I trump up some ghastly theoretical allegiances, or should I just come clean about my desire to leave theory behind to try to become genuinely learned?" He decided to do the latter, cautiously. In his job talk, he said:

"The writings I've published draw on a number of different theoretical perspectives...the overarching goal I've set for myself in my scholarship, though is gradually to lessen my reliance on the theories of others..." He sensed at this point that he had lost the support of about three quarters of his audience, and he was not offered the job. Those who did like the statement were older faculty members--one of whom later told Prof "Y" that she hadn't heard anyone say something like this in twenty years.

Why is theory (which would often more accurately be called meta-theory) so attractive to so many denizens of university humanities departments? To some extent, the explanation lies in simple intellectual fad-following. But I think there is a deeper reason. Becoming an alcolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships--all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics--you don't need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying "that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors" (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan's unusual novel True Crime.)

The dictatorship of theory has reached its greatest extremes in university humanities departments, but is not limited to these. Writing 50 years ago, C S Lewis says the following about his sociologist hero in the novel That Hideous Strength:

"..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow...he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes," and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."

It's unlikely that the phenomenon Lewis describes has become any less prevalent in the intervening half-century. But in the social sciences, there is at least some tradition of empiricism to offset an uncontrolled swing to pure theory.

The theoretical obsession has even made a transition from academia into the business world, via MBA programs. Many newly-graduated MBAs have in their head some strategic "paradigm," into which they will fit any business reality like a Procrustean bed. The 4X4 strategic grid, or the mathematical decision tool, are far more real to them than the actual details of manufacturing and selling a particular product. Like Lewis' sociologist, they believe in "the superior reality of things not seen." The attractions of theory-driven kind of thinking in business are similar to those that make it attractive in university humanities departments. By emphasizing theoretical knowledge, an MBA with little experience can convince himself (and possibly others) that he deserves more authority than those with broad experience and "tacit knowledge" in a particular business.

I'm not arguing that theory is useless in business management, any more than I'm arguing that it's useless in academia. I am arguing that theory should be balanced by factual knowledge and empiricism, and that it should never be allowed to degenerate into dogma.

There's an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In today's world, we have an epidemic of people metaphorically trying to use hammers to drive nails, or to use saws to weld metal. Academia bears a grave responsibility for this situation. Too often, professors have acted not like true scholars, but like preachers believing that their salvation lies in getting people to accept the One True Doctrine, entire and unmodified--or like salesmen who have only one product to sell and will do their best to sell it to you, regardless of whether it has anything to do with your actual needs or not.

The correspondence on Critical Mass gives hope that this situation may giving rise to a reaction within academia. Professor "Y" also tells about a discussion with a senior professor of English at Oxford. "he was recounting the various theoretical steamrollers he'd seen come and go over the past forty years when someone asked him, "What comes after theory?" He paused dramatically, crooked one evebrow, and said, "Honesty."

Bring it on.

8:36 AM

Saturday, June 21, 2003  

The 63rd anniversary of Dunkirk passed a couple of weeks ago, with little notice on this side of the Atlantic. Dunkirk was, of course, one of the hinge points of history. Had the British not been successful in evacuating their troops from the beaches, they might well have not been able to continue the fight at all. The course of events would have been very different, and most likely very grim.

The evacuation was carried out largely by an armada of "little ships"--mostly civilian craft, often operated by civilian crews. They came in close to the beach, risking mines, artillery fire, submarines, and air attack. Many of them made several trips.

One of these ships was the paddle steamer Medway Queen. Built in 1924, she is powered by two reciprocating steam engines. Her boilers were originally coal-fired, but she was converted to oil firing during the 1930s. She operated for many years as an excursion boat, carrying a normal load of 800 passengers.

During the Dunkirk evacuation, Medway Queen made seven round trips across the channel and rescued 7000 men. She was also credited with the shooting down of 4 German aircraft.

After the war, she returned to civilian service. Sometime during the 1970s, she sank in the River Medina. She was raised in 1987, and the Medway Queen Preservation Society is attempting to restore the ship and put her back in service. It is estimated that about 4 million pounds will be required for this effort. Supporters of the MQPS include Sir Mick Jagger and Dame Vera Lynn.

Medway Queen is a historic vessel for two reasons: in addition to her role at Dunkirk, she was surely one of the last true paddle steamers to be built. She represents, therefore, an important era in maritime and technological history. It would be great to see this ship restored, not just as a static museum piece but back in regular passenger service. Drop by MQPS and think about making a contribution. And, if you live in Britain and have appropriate skills, you can volunteer to help with the work.

8:54 AM

Friday, June 20, 2003  

From Iraq, here's some good news:

Just a few months ago, Ali Hammid Abdullah thought his life, at 42 years, was over. A lieutenant colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, he offended the regime and was slammed into prison, his family terrified, his own future narrowing to torture and a painful death.

Today, Ali is helping invent a new government, self-rule at the very grass roots as part of a largely spontaneous movement with the potential to transform Iraq.

Freed from prison by U.S. combat troops, he returned to his squalid neighborhood of al-Obaidi, in eastern Baghdad, to find a disaster: Government food deliveries had stopped, power and water were off, sewage was backing up and schools and vacant lots -- used as gun sites by the regime -- were littered with live ammunition.

But Mr Abdullah and his neighbors (in al-Obaidi) didn't sit around and complain. They formed a neighborhood council, and went to work. They also approached the U.S. army for assistance, and have been working with Major Bob Caffrey, civil affairs chief of 1st Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry regiment. The neighborhood council, with help from the local U.S. troops, is making significant progress in getting things cleaned up.

Now for the bad news:

Surprisingly, given the U.S. commitment to rebuilding Iraq, money to help neighborhoods like al-Obaidi is extremely scarce. Caffrey said he has been unable to get any funding through the U.S. civilian agency, the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or OCPA.

"I've tried and tried," he said. "Zilch."

(via NJ.com and Glenn Reynolds)

This is not too bright on the part of the OCPA, and that's putting it mildly. Bottom-up neighborhood rejuvenation projects can be as important, if possibly not as time-critical, as the large-scale infrastructure projects. Things people do for themselves mean more to them than things done "for" them by others. Gaining experience in local self-management is an important step in Iraq's transition to democracy. And the leveraging of local volunteer resources will permit U.S. and other Coalition resources--both manpower and financial--to go much further.

Every civil affairs commander in the U.S. Army in Iraq should have a discretionary fund available to spend on projects such as those at al-Obaidi. He should also have ready access to an authority which can make fast-turnaround decisions on requests for additional funding above his own spending limit. The total amounts of money involved will likely be very small as part of total Iraq reconstructions costs--but they can have very high leverage.

UPDATE: army.mil has a good article on the work of the civil affairs troops in Iraq.

3:33 PM

Tuesday, June 17, 2003  

The No Child Left Behind act, now law, contains a provision known as the Unsafe School Choice Provision. Under this provision of the NCLB, if a school is persistently violent for two years in a row, parents can transfer their kids to other non-persistently violent schools. This is meant to give parents more freedom to protect their children. The proposal leaves a great deal of latitude as to the definition of a "persistently violent" school, and it appears that the New York schools intend to seriously abuse this flexibility.

Dee Alpert, a NY lawyer, describes a proposal which the NY State Education Department has submitted to the NY Board of Regents:

Under this proposal, only weapons offenses count as crimes. If a 12 year old is raped in school by a fellow who just beats her unconscious first with his fists, it doesn't count. If he rapes her at knife point, it does. A homicide does not count if it's done with fists, or by banging the victim's head into a wall or throwing him/her down a flight of stairs. Gotta be a gun, knife, etc. involved!... (more at Number 2 Pencil)

This proposal to me seems to undercut the will of Congress as expressed in the legislation, and in many situations to leave kids deliberately exposed to violence.

What is going on here? What would possess a group of educational administrators to behave in this way? It seems to me likely that several factors are at work in this policy:

1) The strange belief of many modern liberals that chains of cause and effect are always associated with objects rather than with people (as indicated by the obsessive use of the phrase "gun violence," as opposed to, say, "teenage violence" or just "violence.")
2) Bureaucratic mindset and convenience. The use or nonuse of a weapon is a binary condition--no judgment is required. Broader criteria might actually require someone to exercise thought as to whether or not a particular incident exceeded a threshold..and that would conflict with what is apparently the deepest desire of many school administrators--to redefine their jobs so that they could be done by a computer (as in "zero-tolerance" policies.)
3) One of the reasons for the above behavior is, of course, the fear of lawsuits. The more discretionary judgment one exercises, the more angles for legal attack are opened up.

The casual brutality of public school systems continues to amaze.

(This matter was surfaced by Bas Braams)

3:06 PM


California has cancelled plans to give a high-school exit exam. The reason? Too many students were expected to fail--despite the fact it only covers material up through 10th grade level--and that students can have up to eight tries at the exam. "It's not clear that all of the class of 2004 has had an adequate opportunity to learn the material -- in particular, the algebra and pre-algebra part," said Board of Education Chairman Reed Hastings. The intent of the school board is evidently to begin the testing process in some-so far undefined-future year. "We're happy that the class of 2004 -- the students who didn't get a quality education -- are not going to have their diplomas taken away,'' said Mike Chavez of of the organization Californians for Justice.

So basically, those who run this school system are admitting that the system has done such a poor job that many 12th graders can't pass a 10th-grade test--in eight attempts. I'm sure they would have many excuses about "poor enviornments" and "lack of family support," but, basically, their system has failed. The only proper response to this situation would be an urgent program for massive change in the school system--a tough, urgent, and even ruthless program that would involve demotions and terminations of inadquate administrators and teachers, as well as the challenging of many organizational sacred cows. Does anyone want to place bets on the odds of this really happening?

America's public school systems increasingly resemble a parody of an automobile assembly line, vintage 1970 or so. Cars are coming off the line with missing spark plugs, mismatched paint, doors that won't close...and when anyone tries to do something, the cry goes up from management: Don't stop the line! Quality control inspectors at the end of the line try to point out problems--they are told to shut up, and not to interfere. Workers do jobs that are poorly designed and that they know they could do much better--but they are convinced to go along with the system--in the name of keeping the line going--for job security, and so that increasingly defective-products can be shipped for sale to customers who don't want them. The process is all; the product and the people are nothing.

Many of our public schools go beyond not treating people with the respect due to human beings--they don't even treat people with the respect due to objects

(hat tip: Joanne Jacobs)

9:22 AM

Monday, June 16, 2003  

Iraq's deepwater port, Umm Qasr, is finally opening today. Seven of the 21 berths are ready to handle large, deep-draft vessels, and dredging operations should open up the rest by August or September. The facility will help enable shipments of both food and of consumer goods, and will also be key to the development of export opportunities for the Iraqi economy. The U.S.-led interim civil administration has suspended tariffs and trade restrictions on most goods--during the Saddam era, shipments of cola were once taxed at 200% and air-conditioning units at 100%.

Opening of this port will help greatly in combatting unemployment, and represents a significant step forward in the reconstruction of Iraq. (via The Wall Street Journal.)

9:20 AM

Saturday, June 14, 2003  

Back in the olden days of the blogosphere (2 or 3 months ago), the literary form known as "fisking" (line-by-line rebuttal) reached the level of a high art. In recent days, though, the classical full fisking seems to be on the decline.

Rachel Lucas has now remedied this. Go and read her reply to Mark Morford.

2:01 PM

Wednesday, June 11, 2003  

On Sunday, The Washington Post wrote as follows:

Palestinian gumen killed four Israeli soldiers today in an attack on a military outpost here that signalled defiance by radical groups of demands for a cease-fire in their war against Israel. The pre-dawn raid was the first military operation by radicals since the Aqaba peace summit last Wednesday...

What do they mean, "military operation?" A military operation must be sponsored and directed by a government. Does the Post possess evidence that the Palestinian Authority directly planned and authorized this mission? If they had such evidence, I feel confident that they would report it.

If the attack was not planned and directed by the PA, it certainly could not legitimately be referred to as a "military operation." If it was planned and directed by the PA, then the entire "roadmap for peace" stands revealed as a fraud. Which is it? The Post can't have it both ways.

Use of the term "military operation" in what purports to be a straight news story seems to me to be inappropriate editorializing--an attempt to give a gloss of legitimacy to what was in fact a terrorist act. This isn't responsible journalism.

7:15 PM

Thursday, June 05, 2003  

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!

Rudyard Kipling (1891)

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to overturn a ruling that veterans are not entitled to free lifetime health care, even if recruiters promised that they would get this benefit. For decades, military recruits were often lured with the promise of health care for life if they served for 20 years in the armed forces. Evidence shows that such promises were made with the knowledge of higher authority. But the appeals court, in the decision recently upheld by the Supreme Court, ruled that the promise was not binding on grounds that only Congress has authority to make such a promise.

It should be noted here that the issue concerns medical expenses incurred between 1995--when coverage was ended--and 2001, when Congress passed legislation providing for payment of the medical expenses going forward--but for some reason failed to provide for the repayment of expenses that veterans had to pay themselves during the gap years.

I don't understand the legal theory behind the Court's reasoning. If a private company made promises to customers over a period of decades, with the knowledge of senior members of its executive staff, then I feel strongly suspect that--even if those executives lacked the actual authority to make such promises--the committments would be considered as legally binding obligations of the company. However, I'm not a lawyer and could be wrong on this.

However, it doesn't really matter. Congress can override the court's decision and authorize payment of these interim benefits, and should do so immediately. The cost is estimated at $15 billion. Isn't the credibility of the United States--to its own soldiers--worth that much?

O thirty million English that babble of England's might
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack for their food to-night
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made--"
And we leave to the strees and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

7:50 PM


So Armed Liberal was riding his motorcycle to work in L.A. He has one of those modulated headlights that varies its intensity, the idea being to make the motorcycle more visible. At a traffic light, he pulled up next to a car with a "War is not the answer" bumper sticker (and also a "No blood for oil") The woman driving the car rolled down her window and complained to Armed Liberal about the light: "It's horrible. It's giving me a headache."

"I'm sorry! It doesn't bother most people."

"Well, it's giving me a headache. And you ought to be careful because it might make someone so angry they'll run you over one day!"

Armed Liberal mentioned the incident on his blog, and a commenter had this to say: "I live on the other coast. A classic Cambridge, Massachusetts sight is someone in a car held together by the Peace&Love stickers, screaming obscenities at a parent who isn't herding the toddlers through the crosswalk fast enough."

Writing in the March/April issue of American Spectator, Ben Stein wonders how "peace activists" would show up on the anger and insecurity indices of the MMPI (a well-known personality test) when compared with members of the armed forces.

7:20 PM

Wednesday, June 04, 2003  

Right in the middle of critical negotiations over the future of the Middle East, the web site of the Palestinian Authority State Information Center publishes this vile cartoon. As Charles says, it is a "horrific reiteration of the antisemitic blood libel...'bad faith' doesn’t even begin to describe this."

This appears on an official Palestinian Authority web site: http://www.ipc.gov.ps/ipc_e/ipc_e-1/e_Carcature/ipc-e_car2.html. Note especially the .gov suffix, and ask yourself if publication of this cartoon is something a responsible government--or a responsible aspiring government--would do.

8:51 AM

Monday, June 02, 2003  


International Children's Day is being celebrated with a variety of festivities, in countries throughout the world. And in the Middle East, Yasser Arafat urged children to become shahids--suicide bombers. Video footage of Arafat's remarks was played on Israel Channel 2 television. Correspondent Ehud Yaari noted that Arafat's remarks made no mention of peace or reconcilliation.

Cal Thomas has some comments on this matter.

There has been very little coverage of this in the U.S. mainstream media. Why?

7:50 PM

Sunday, June 01, 2003  

You've probably bought things off of E-Bay, maybe even sold some. But did you know that you can buy a Simco Sl-400-01MC CNC Milling Machine and Turning Center for only $37,500? It went originally for more than $130,000. It weighs several tons, so before entering a bid you may want to check out the strength of your floor beams.

According to Forbes, E-Bay's "Business and Industrial" marketplace is already selling more than $1 billion in annualized value of goods. One customer of this service is the co-owner of a business in Gainsville, GA. After winning a big order for robotic equipment, he needed to set up a machine shop to produce it--something he estimated would cost him $750,000. But by buying used equipment off E-Bay, he was able to get everything he needed for only $100,000.

E-Bay and similar auction sites act to greatly improve the liquidity of the used-equipment market. This implies that many businesses that in previous times would have bought new equipment are now able to satisfy their needs with used equipment, at a much lower cost. And it's not only machine tools that are being acquired in this manner. PCs, servers, routers, network switches--cost-conscious companies are acquiring a wide range of IT equipment via on-line auctions.

Over time, this improved liquidity will certainly improve the productivity of the U.S. economy. Equipment that would previously have been underutilized or even scrapped will be able to find a happy home. The ratio of output to capital will increase, and this is a primary driver of growth and productivity. But, in the short term, this phenomenon could potentially slow down the recovery. To the extent that companies are able to source their needs on the used-equipment market, there will be less demand for new capital equipment, and hence less hiring (and less capital investment) by producers of capital goods.

Is the electronic market for used capital equipment already big enough to have a major economic impact--both for better and for worse? It's hard to say. $1 billion sounds like a large number, but it's small in the context of overall U.S. capital spending. On the other hand, there are many auction sites other than E-Bay. And, within E-Bay itself, not all capital equipment is traded on the "Business and Equipment" marketplace--computers, for example, have their own marketplace. So the overall volumes are probably considerably larger than $1B.

1:58 PM

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