Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

I pledge a waffle to the flag—Monday, September 29th, 2014
photo for Waffle of Allegiance

I promise to avoid responsibility through caviling and sophistry.

The bumper sticker reads, “I pledge allegiance, not thoughtless obedience.” I’m not really sure why this bumper sticker rubs me the wrong way. I’ve never particularly liked pledging to the flag; I’d rather pledge allegiance to the constitution, and to the Republic which it creates.

But this bumper sticker slogan is like saying, “I promised to obey you, not do what you ask of me.” I mean, yes, it shifts words, and it adds an adjective to the second word, unthinking being always wrong and obedience being one of those things Americans don’t do. That’s why “obey” is such a powerful horror in They Live and on telephone pole stickers. But putting any type of adjective on obedience is waffling. At that point it is no longer obedience. Semantically it’s the same as “I pledge allegiance, not obedience.”

I don’t even disagree with that. I’d probably react less viscerally if it didn’t play word games. But the word-play is holding your fingers crossed behind your back during your marriage vows.

Pledging allegiance is important, and should not be done lightly. You shouldn’t be pledging allegiance if you don’t actually mean allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance is not liking a business on FaceBook.

For that matter, nobody’s asking for unthinking allegiance to the flag. They’re asking for allegiance to the Republic For Which It Stands. The flag doesn’t require anything of you other than what stands behind it. Other people pledge their allegiance to kings and princes. We pledge ours to an idea. Kings and princes can command obedience. Allegiance to the flag is enforced only by yourself and your own honor.

And I suspect the reason that bumper sticker bugs me so is that their real problem isn’t with supporting the flag, it’s supporting a Republic, and all that this Republic’s constitution means in messy public discourse and lawmaking.

The Party of Reason?—Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Jeff Bergman synthesizes Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed and Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer in his Weekly Standard piece, The Party of Reason? and asks the question, which party bases their policy on reason, and which party on wishes and authoritarianism?

“Most societies throughout history have consisted of small pockets of wealth and widespread poverty. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey has noted, a graph of real per capita income would run flat, and very close to the x-axis, from the earliest peoples until roughly 1750. The new capitalist system and its accompanying social values made possible productivity gains that created widespread per capita income growth for the first time ever. It also made possible for the first time significant income redistribution.

‘Economic growth is and has always been the only meaningful way to raise real per capita income and thus alleviate widespread poverty. Redistribution can doubtless provide short-term relief to those at the lowest end of the economy. But there is no known example of any nation permanently lifting its people out of poverty by redistributing the finite resources of its national product. Indeed, redistribution at any given moment is made possible only by prior economic growth, without which there would be little or nothing to redistribute. Economic growth is the necessary precondition for increasing per capita income, as well as for broad redistributive policies.

‘This is a fundamental lesson from the economic history of mankind… Which party has learned this elementary lesson from history?”

“The search for villains—whether the British intelligence service for LaRouchies, democratic protesters in Venezuela, or the Koch brothers in the mind of Harry Reid—always springs from the same impulse. The targets differ, but their role is the same: to explain away the failure of policies that cannot possibly work. Here is a hint about where the paranoid style actually resides in American politics today.”

‘The Democratic party demonstrates abundant resistance to new technologies—for oil and gas extraction, clean coal, nuclear power, genetically modified food, and strategic missile defense, to name a few. Green technology alone finds favor in the Democratic party. That would be unobjectionable—many Republicans favor it too—if it meant government support for scientific research whose findings are made available to the public. Instead, cascades of public money have been wasted picking politically favored corporations to commercialize technologies that are not ready for prime time.”

Always get tape—Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Over on Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle has some very good advice on handling interviews by way of Ed Driscoll, which boils down to don’t and if you do, get tape. She focuses on The Daily Show, which is well-known for its clown-nose-on, clown-nose-off style of ransom-note interviews. But it applies everywhere.

I once had an interview with a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune about my writing about self-defense issues on the Internet. This was back in the nineties, when just having a web presence was noteworthy. My last—and, it turns out, only—interview was from the eighties, when just owning a computer and making it do things was newsworthy.1

The Union-Tribune interview came shortly after I purchased my first video camera. I was kind of stoked on the video camera purchase—the cheapest digital video camera I could find in 1998—and was using it all the time. I thought it would be cool to record the interview for myself.

When the nice old lady from the Tribune walked into my apartment and saw the camera, it was like showing a cross to a vampire. I swear to god, in my memory she arched and hissed.

I originally wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about recording it, but the way she acted and the logic she used for not wanting to be recorded made me more and more adamant that the interview was going to be recorded or it wasn’t going to be done.

She just kept going on and on about how I could trust her notes, how she was a professional and would never misquote me. “I’ve got a notepad,” she said, “and I take careful notes.” She assured me that I didn’t have to worry about being misquoted.

Well, I never even said I was worried about being misquoted, but not that you mention it… the more intensely she tried to convince me to not record the interview, the more I thought I needed to. I finally told her that I simply would not do the interview unless I taped it. She agreed, and I turned the video camera on.

At the end of the interview, she claimed she thought I’d said the opposite, and that when I turned the video camera on, I had really turned it off. And that I could solve the whole thing by giving her the tape. I refused again, and that was the end of it; there was no newspaper article, at least, not with me. She was so afraid of me having tape that she, after performing the interview, never used it. She was more afraid of the camera than she was of the handgun, which she continually asked me to display unsafely for her photographer.2

Your devil has no clothes—Monday, September 22nd, 2014
The devil in politics

Othering was making the rounds of blogs I read a while back, and it got me to thinking about the different nature of the devils of the left and of conservatives. I just finished P. J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores. In it, O’Rourke quotes Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which led me to add that to my want list. I found it recently in one of the local Half-Price Books.

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.

At the risk of internalizing the othering of our politicians and writing my most partisan blog post yet, while conservatives have their own devils created for them, the left creates devils where they wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Not only would no one on the left consider Alaska’s former Governor Sarah Palin an evil worth stalking at her home and on her Facebook page—to the point of wishing death upon her children—if she hadn’t been turned into a devil, many would look up to her as a moderate Republican maverick in the style of John McCain, fighting against the Republican establishment. The snow devil that the left hates and the politician that Palin was are very different creatures. She had to be turned into a devil fictionally.

The devils of the right, instead, are so because of their policy differences. They are mostly not even devils: I have not seen anyone wish that President Obama’s children had been killed1. It’s their policies that make them into opponents and they would still be opposed even without any othering by mass movement leaders. Even if there were no Ace of Spades HQ continually ranting about the bad policies of President Obama, I would still be looking at his actions since taking office and thinking, this guy is making really bad decisions that are really hurting people in America and the world. The only change, if there were no conservative blogosphere, is that I’d be wondering why nobody else saw it.

It’s not Barack Obama that conservatives hate. It’s what he’s doing to our economy, to our freedoms, and to world relations. In a sense, leftists despise politicians but love the government made up of politicians, whereas conservatives dislike government but think individual politicians are fine.

To most people, science is magic—Saturday, September 20th, 2014

“Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.”

‘So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says ‘science’ is something different.

‘To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

‘In other words—and this is the key thing—when people say ‘science’, what they really mean is magic or truth.”

(Hat tip to Ace at Ace of Spades HQ.)
If you like your health insurance, you can go screw yourself—Monday, September 15th, 2014
If you like your health plan…

I’ve been expecting this letter ever since I signed up for private health insurance under the wire last December. President Obama and the Senate refuse to work with the House and Republicans to allow people to keep their insurance plans as promised. The president issues his edicts outside of the legislative process, and the Senate refuses to hear any fixes. This means that, no, I don’t get to keep my plan if I like it. Unless the exchanges have changed considerably since I looked at them last year, it also means my insurance premiums are going to nearly double—assuming I don’t decide just to take the tax penalty.

New Affordable Care Act (ACA) changes are here, but you can keep your Aetna health plan through December 31, 2014

In 2013 we told you that you’d need to move to an ACA-compliant plan when your current policy ended in 2014. We’ve since extended your policy. This allows you to stay in your current plan through December 31, 2014.

This is nice, but not that nice. Without the extension, my current plan goes through December 15, 2014. I deliberately moved to Texas in mid-December last year in order to get in under the ACA wire and have good health insurance for as long as possible before the ACA mess kicked in. But Obama wants to get even with me.

The letter continues:

Good news! There’s nothing you need to do until the 2015 Open Enrollment period begins.

Key points to note

  • Your monthly payment will stay the same.
  • Your deductible, out-of-pocket costs, and benefit limits remain the same and will not reset.
  • If you have previously received a Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC), it lists the benefits available through December 31, 2014.

On reading this, I thought, even though I had been expecting this letter, that somehow insurance companies were allowed to continue existing policies indefinitely and I hadn’t heard about it! Then I realized, on reading the next paragraph, that this applied only to the 15-day extension.

While your current plan is available through December 31, 2014, it cannot be renewed. All new policies must be ACA-compliant for the calendar year 2015. Open Enrollment for 2015 will run from November 15, 2014 to February 15, 2015. Before your policy ends, you will get information about plan options available to you.

That is, my monthly payment will not remain the same, nor will my deductible.

The dark side of bureaucratic health care—Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

There’s a well-known problem with studies on humans. While we’re willing to let rats and even monkeys die in order to learn more about the mysteries of life and health, we aren’t willing to increase the risk of death in humans. Good studies even have to be double-blind, which means that even the person providing the new procedure or medicine doesn’t know what which group each patient is in: if they’re giving some people a new medicine and others a placebo, even the doctor doesn’t know which patients are getting medicine and which patients are getting the placebo.

Studies that start killing people will be halted before the study is complete. That’s human nature, and it’s good.

But human nature has its dark side, too, and that dark side tends to show up in government bureaucracies. That’s the tendency to hide people behind paperwork, and the tendency, when their programs run up against reality, to treat reality as defective. And when people start questioning decisions that deviate further and further from reality, to obfuscate and hide their true intentions.

That’s what struck me about the SUPPORT1 study by the National Institute of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services:

Medical personnel routinely give supplemental oxygen to babies who are born with immature lungs. Too much oxygen can cause severe eye damage, including a blood vessel disease and blindness called retinopathy. Too little oxygen can lead to brain damage and death.

The NIH-funded experiment used the test babies in an attempt to find the sweet spot for preemies yet to be born: the lowest level of oxygen that would preserve vision, yet be sufficient to prevent brain damage and death.

To get the answer, researchers arbitrarily assigned infants to either a high-oxygen or low-oxygen group. Because, researchers say, all oxygen levels fell within the generally accepted range, they argue the babies received the same “standard of care” as babies not in the study. None of the consent forms mentioned a risk of death from the oxygen experiment.

The problem with the standard of care argument is that it was untrue. In real life, babies don’t get a single oxygen level throughout their time on life support. Their oxygen level is varied depending on their response to it. This is because too much oxygen can blind them, and too little can kill them, and every baby is different.

This study not only did not allow varying oxygen levels, it hid the restriction from doctors! The machines were altered to display changes when no changes were occurring. The medical staff thought they were working to save the babies, when in fact their efforts were blocked and the feedback faked so that they wouldn’t know.

It will thus not come as a surprise that the study found that high-oxygen babies ended up with more serious vision disorders, and low-oxygen babies were more likely to die.

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.

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