Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Preparing for life in the twenty-first century. Uh, and a half.

The Vintage Mencken—Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

In The Vintage Mencken, Alistair Cooke gathered “mainly to introduce to a generation that never read him a writer who more and more strikes me as the master craftsman of daily journalism in the twentieth century.” On the other hand, this could well be an “I compiled this not to praise Mencken but to bury him” sort of deal, only this time honestly. “Mencken’s thunder,” after all, “issued from an unmaterial mind, but also from a full stomach.”

This collection stresses “the newspaper pieces that had outlived more pretentious stuff”, and I’m not sure but I think Cooke means Mencken’s more pretentious stuff. For Mencken “was overrated in his day as a thinker” but “underrated as a humorist”.

Here are a few of the quotes I’ve added to my quotes database from The Vintage Mencken:

If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust or profit under the United States…

In the whole realm of human learning there is no faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy.

The great combat is ending this afternoon in the classical Democratic manner. That is to say, the victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile.

If revenge is really sweet he was sucking a colossal sugar teat, but all the same there was a beery flavor about it that must have disquieted him.

He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite.

We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof.

Frankness and courage are luxuries confined to the more comic varieties of runners-up at national conventions.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Many of these are out of context; Mencken is at his best when taken out of context. Cooke recognizes this, and many of the articles are abridged. Reading this, I can’t but get the feeling that Cooke’s ambivalence about Mencken carried over into his choices; Mencken is a legend, but these articles seem to qualify Mencken for the Order of Cantankerous Emilies, Litella Class. The strangest is a nearly incomprehensible diatribe sarcastically proposing civilian awards for overzealousness (honest and cynical) in wartime, riffing off of the proliferation of fraternal orders at the time, the Elks and such. It almost makes more sense as if Mencken were making fun of opinion pieces rather than any topic therein. The ideas are only thinly connected and Mencken has, at least, a better reputation than not to realize that in satire and sarcasm the links must be strong to hold.

A tale of two keyboards: iwerkz and Logitech K760—Friday, August 22nd, 2014
Logitech K760 solar keyboard

The K760 can quickly switch between up to three devices, such as the iMac and iPad here.

Since I already had an Apple wireless keyboard for my iMac when I started traveling with the iPad, I generally brought the Apple keyboard with me on trips. The Apple keyboard is nice because it’s compact; the only real problem was that when I returned from a trip I needed to reconnect with the iMac and have the iPad forget it. It wasn’t reasonably possible to use the Apple keyboard at home with both the iPad and the iMac. I was always waking the wrong computer up.

My Apple wireless keyboard is old—it actually came with my previous iMac, and I kept it for use with my current iMac when I bought it about five years ago.

About two years ago, I unpacked the keyboard after a long trip to discover one of the keys missing. Fortunately I was able to find the missing key in the bottom of my luggage and it snapped back in fine. But I decided it was time to start looking for a good portable keyboard that I could dedicate to the iPad. Unfortunately there just didn’t seem to be anything out there. The roll-up keyboards seemed nice, until I was able to try one out. The display model at Brookstone worked only sporadically, which didn’t bode well for surviving the rigors of travel.

I continued to use the Apple keyboard, taking extra care to pack it safely. But about a year ago another key fell off, and while it snapped back in it didn’t work. It was the backslash/pipe key. I tried to get by without it—I use Python at home most of the time, which doesn’t use the pipe for or, so mainly I used it on the command line and in Perl. In those circumstances I pulled up the onscreen keyboard palette. Which is as annoying as it sounds—probably all the more annoying because it happened so infrequently I never remembered, and was usually several lines down before I realized there was an issue.

Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father—Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

David Goldhill begins Catastrophic Care by saying “I’m a Democrat and once held views about health care common in my party.” He isn’t lying: he is far to the left in his worldview: businessmen are evil and exist to screw the average person. But he is also a businessman, so he recognizes that even the evil businessmen have an incentive to not screw the average person, and that these incentives don’t exist in the health care industry:

Every business would like to get away with high prices, poor quality, and miserable service, but this behavior carries an unacceptable cost: lost customers, lost revenue, lost profits. In health care, bad behavior doesn’t produce these bad results; bad behavior is often rewarded with additional revenue, and efficiency is penalized with less.

As a leftist, he idolizes health care businessmen above other businessmen; as a businessman, he recognizes that they respond to the same incentives other businessmen do.

All of the actors in health care want to serve patients well, but understandably most respond rationally to the backward economic incentives baked into the system.

In fact, quite a few businessmen started their business to provide a service, and many, despite all of the regulatory incentives to not do so well, still strive to provide good service.

His dual, almost dissociative, worldview causes him to make extraordinarily conflicting sentences:

In a system burdened by complexity, bureaucratic explosion, and lack of innovation, the ACA paves the way for even more rules, many of which are merely mandates for future rules and ever more committees and commissions. The problem with the ACA isn’t that it represents “government takeover of health care” or “socialism” or even the famous but nonexistent “death panels.” The problem with the ACA is that it’s so old-fashioned.

The problem with the ACA, in other words, is not that it’s old-fashioned. It’s that it’s old-fashioned. Top-down, government controlled, filled with committees and commissions to determine what life-saving care will be allowed, that’s what old-fashioned means. But as a leftist, he can’t quite get to admitting that socialism is an old-fashioned solution.

Democratic District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg: The Star of the Anointed—Saturday, August 16th, 2014
Rosemary Lehmberg falling-down-drunk

I’m not drunk, officer. I just don’t stand for anything.

A Bob Filner or a Ted Kennedy can be tolerated because he is part of the anointed—their intentions are good, so their actions are interpreted in that light. Someone who is not part of the anointed—who does not share their policies or who persists in doing what works rather than what is well-intentioned—must have bad intentions, and their actions will be judged in light of their bad intentions.—Jerry Stratton (The Vision of the Anointed)

On the night of April 12, 2013, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, head of the Texas Public Integrity Unit, and Democrat, blew a .238 blood alcohol level after being stopped by police and then arrested. Her blood alcohol level was almost certainly higher while she was driving: she refused to take the test, even refusing to take the field sobriety tests; so her BAC wasn’t tested for over an hour after her arrest. In video, she can barely stand; when driving, she weaved so far that she entered both the bicycle lane and the oncoming traffic lane. She lied to the arresting officer about her drunkenness, tried to convince every officer she came in contact with that her political stature and connections entitled her to be let go, and threatened that she would use her office and connections to punish them if they did not.

Don’t you know who I am? I’ll have you all in jail. I’ll have all your badges.

Common sense says that such a person should not lead the state’s Public Integrity Unit, and, conversely, that a Public Integrity Unit with such leadership is rudderless and corrupt, and should be disbanded. Common sense says that such a person is unfit to decide who gets charged and who goes free under the state integrity laws.

…the very commonness of common sense makes it unlikely to have any appeal to the anointed. How can they be wiser and nobler than everyone else while agreeing with everyone else?—Thomas Sowell (The Vision of the Anointed)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
Amusing Ourselves to Death Television cover

Television, according to Postman, is emblematic of all electronic media.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is extraordinarily sloppy. On the very first page, he writes about a statue of a hog butcher that may or may not exist in Chicago. That may have been poorly-worded sarcasm, but on the next page he speculates that because President Richard Nixon—after resigning—advised Senator Ted Kennedy to lose twenty pounds if he wants to run for president,

…it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office. Probably bald people as well. Almost certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhanced by the cosmetician’s art. Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

Now, the conclusion may be true. But it is worded in such a passive-aggressive manner as to be near-useless. The evidence given—a disgraced politician’s dieting advice to a man whose biggest impediment to national office was not weight issues but leaving a woman to drown slowly overnight—simply doesn’t make any sense except as sarcasm. And not only was Kennedy’s weight not the biggest roadblock keeping him from the Oval Office, but the leap from Nixon’s advice on weight to baldness is done without any proffered evidence. And yet, this is not sarcasm: this is the thesis of the book, that appearance has become more important than substance.

He speaks a lot about Aldous Huxley in this book, contrasting Huxley’s vision of the future with George Orwell’s. But even that is impossibly vague, starting right in the first chapter when he writes that “We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators…”.

He describes his purpose at the start of chapter two:

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.

Half of the US will have videotex terminals by 2000—Friday, July 25th, 2014

A news blurb in the April, 1982, 80 microcomputing:

By 2000 A.D., videotext terminals will cost as little as $50, according to a study by the Institute for the Future, a California research and consulting group.

The concern also predicted 10 percent of the homes in the United States will have terminals by 1990—when the devices will sell for $200—and 40 percent by the end of the century.

According to the computer newspaper Infoworld, figures on videotext compiled at the end of 1981 reveal 42,000 U.S. and Canadian terminals were subscribing to Dow Jones, The Source and CompuServe; 150,000 U.K. terminals were receiving one-way CEEfax and Oracle teletext; and 10,500 terminals were interactive with 500 electronic publishers and 500 users in seven countries over Prestel’s international service.

This was not in the April Fools section, nor is it a simple change in terminology. In 1981, the “videotext terminal” was specifically a dumb terminal used for interacting with subscription services—and there were people who still thought the dumb terminal with network (dial-up, at the time) connectivity would be the mainstream version of the personal computer.

Abolishing the corporate income tax gains steam—Friday, July 25th, 2014

Abolishing the invisible tax called the corporate income tax has surprisingly gained new supporters since I wrote No corporation pays taxes. Megan McArdle wrote on Bloomberg View that:

The problem with this extended chess game is that every move is very costly. First, it adds to the complexity of the tax code. With every new rule—no matter how earnestly said rule attempts to close a “loophole”—it becomes harder to know whether you are in compliance with the law. This is true on both sides; corporate tax law has now passed well beyond the point where it is possible for a single expert to be familiar with its ins and outs. This makes it harder to plan business expansions, harder to forecast government revenue, and it requires both sides to hire more experts in order to determine whether corporations are compliant. It also means more lawsuits, and longer ones, as both sides wrangle over how this morass of laws should be applied to real-world situations.

The corporate income tax makes it harder to create new businesses because you can’t just become great at making your new widget; you have to become great at understanding and influencing Washington, DC. Which means that many people who would otherwise create thriving new markets with new jobs don’t.

John Steele Gordon at Commentary adds to this, noting:

Megan points out that abolishing the corporate income tax would bring howls of protest from the left that corporations aren’t paying “their fair share.” But corporations, of course, don’t pay the corporate income tax. Instead it’s paid by some combination of workers, with lower wages; customers, with higher prices; and shareholders, with lower profits. The particular combination depends on the economic circumstances of each industry. And abolishing the corporate income tax (which was, anyway, only intended to be a stopgap until a personal income tax amendment could be ratified) would have many extremely positive effects for the American economy.

He goes on to list several benefits of ending the invisible income tax and invisible sales tax that we call the corporate income tax.

And in January, economist Lawrence Kotlikoff wrote in the New York Times that:

Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism—Monday, July 21st, 2014
Chicago press, 1924

“Press group waits in Criminal Courts Building Memorial Day night, 1924, for expected confession of Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Author John J. McPhaul is person number 3.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines is a glimpse into an ancient world of titans: a world where, rather than one newspaper, or two cooperating newspapers, a city might have four or even five newspapers all competing for as much readership as they could steal from their rivals—or make without their rivals picking up on it until after press time.

John J. McPhaul came up in the tail end of that era, and his anecdotes are about Chicago, but I expect that the same kinds of stories could be found in any frontier-born city. At the time McPhaul wrote Deadlines & Monkeyshines, there were only two newspaper publishers, and only four papers, with each publisher putting out a morning and afternoon edition. But the world he tells about is a world where newspapers could start overnight on the shoestring of a whim and end just as quickly.

Many of the problems we complain about today existed then—they were just only told about in the backrooms and over card tables on the dog watch. McPhaul describes such a late-night card game on page one, consisting of two to three reporters, a sergeant or lieutenant, and possibly a bookmaker or bondsman.

They, as today, thrived on violence. During the 1894 Pullman Company strike, newsmen wrote the following irreverent ditty:

    • War correspondents bold are we
    • And our trade is grim and grey.
    • Peace and quiet suit us not—
    • We want war and we want it hot!

McPhaul also reproduces the Wilbur Storey quote above, but in the context of being a Democrat who

…was no admirer of President Lincoln or the Republican party. He seemed principally interested in the war as a means of selling papers. His standing order to his reporters with the troops was “Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumors.” News and rumors alike were published under exclamatory headlines.

Even modern gremlins such as the sock puppet were exercised by early reporters, in the form of journalists writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms.

Even back then government officials knew how to trade access for good publicity.

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