Mimsy Were the Borogoves

For the wisdom of the wise are the criterion of your madness.

COVID Lessons: Government Monopolies are Still Monopolies—Wednesday, September 9th, 2020
No price for being wrong

Our health care response to COVID-19 destroyed our ability to manage the co-morbidities that made it dangerous, killing the people we should have been focusing our response on. Further, it destroyed our ability to handle any other crises that might come up, individual or mass.

Our stay-at-home orders destroyed our ability to come up with innovative solutions to social distancing.

Our ability to provide critical supplies where they were needed most? We shut that down, too.

We need to be more comfortable with, and encouraging of, paying employees more to show up for work in emergencies. We need to be open to paying employees and businesses more for delivering to areas where supplies are short, and for taking other extra steps to ensure that needs are met in an emergency. Instead, we lumped rerouting supply routes together with hoarding and price gouging. With the result that on the one hand grocery stores limited how much of items like milk we could buy, and on the other, restaurant suppliers dumped their excess.

We would not have had all of the shortages we had if businesses had been allowed to charge enough so that their employees could meet those demands quickly.

We called every price increase gouging, which meant that we couldn’t get supplies where they needed to be. It costs money to run overtime to make more toilet paper, more flour and yeast. It costs money to repackage restaurant milk for consumer use. It costs money to hire more transportation workers on short notice to get those supplies to where they’re needed. It costs money to hire more front-line workers to handle higher demand. All of that means higher prices until the new supply routes become regular routes. When we forbid paying employees more during an emergency or hiring more employees to meet new, emergency needs, we’re ensuring that those needs are not met.

Food got dumped at one location that stores were out of at another. Stores saw a huge demand for home delivery, and instead of quickly adding new employees—which would mean raised prices to cover the increased demand for employment—they delayed delivery times to the point that all available slots fell off the end of the calendar. The people who needed delivery, who had already grown to rely on it… could no longer use it. Because government officials—and the people who voted for them—were talking about criminalizing “price gouging”. But their definition of “price gouging” was “quickly meeting new demand for services”. Prices would have dropped back down. Home delivery prices would, by now, have dropped down to less than they were before the crisis if grocers had been allowed to cover the costs of increased demand in the short term.

If COVID-19 had been as bad as we were initially told, shutting down our ability to route around shortages and to meet new demand would have killed people. It probably did kill people.

42 Astounding Scripts, Catalina edition—Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

I never upgrade my phone just before a trip, and I never upgrade my computer during a major project. Two weeks ago, however, I finally put The Dream of Poor Bazin to bed. You can buy it on Amazon or any of the usual eBook sites.

So last week, I finally got around to upgrading to Catalina.

The upgrade went pleasantly well, and very quickly. It may have been the easiest macOS upgrade yet. I have now updated 42 Astoundingly Useful Scripts and Automations for the Macintosh for Catalina. If you have the ebook, the updated version is already available at the store you bought it from, if not already downloaded to your e-reader.

If you have the print version, or if you’re just interested in what had to be changed for Catalina, I’ll have more about the specific changes later, but for the most part the scripts continued to work after the upgrade. As expected, any scripts that talk to iTunes needed to reference Music instead of iTunes. Less expected, one of the sound-effect scripts needed to change how it detected that the sound was done playing. And in the completely weird, the Contacts app started adding strange characters around some of the data it provides to the JavaScript engine.1

One more thing: the Speed Playback script is no longer necessary. Sped-up playback in iTunes was meant for speeding playback of podcasts. Podcasts now have their own app and that app includes the ability to speed podcast playback, making this script superfluous in Catalina.

You can still use the Speed Playback script on your music files, of course, if you enjoy hearing your favorite artist sound like a chipmunk. But the book is titled “astoundingly useful scripts”, not “moderately amusing scripts” despite my glee in getting Fiona to quote Hunter Thompson in the voices script. I decided to remove Speed Playback and replace it with something both astoundingly useful and moderately amusing. I’ll post the code for Speed Playback in a few weeks.

COVID Lessons: Shutting down innovation—Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

The same pattern of neutering our health care response spread throughout everything else that was shut down, too. Which meant that, instead of being open to innovative ideas for staying open and providing services, states clamped down on organizations and businesses that successfully implemented physical distancing while still providing services.

There is simply no reason to ticket churchgoers, for example, who designed a drive-in service where everyone stayed in their own car. Or restaurants who were able to successfully serve customers while maintaining distancing. We saw the White House Press Corps every day successfully physical distancing while questioning the President. There was no reason to deny this to everyone except the press.

If people can figure out how to go to church while maintaining separation, that’s a great innovation that needs to spread to other organizations, not something deserving of massive fines. If teenagers can figure out how to hold a safe senior get-together to make up for the loss of their graduation events, again, that’s not something to be destroyed, it’s something to be celebrated. So many politicians seemed to think that if you were social while physically separated, you were defying their authority.

We should have learned from these innovations. We should not have slapped fines on the very ideas we needed most, or punished those who came up with those ideas.

Both prescriptive and performance mandates block progress. Prescriptive mandates block innovative ways to solve a problem, and performance mandates block innovative ways to go around a problem. Our response to any crisis must allow both getting through the crisis and going around the crisis.

Release: The Dream of Poor Bazin—Saturday, August 15th, 2020
Dream of Poor Bazin cover

“All tides carry their own riptide,” Stephen writes, “and the wave of populist hate that won this Pyrrhic victory is already rolling back.”

It will never be said of Stephen Price Blair that he spilled any ink with half a heart.

What if the Three Musketeers were journalists in Washington, DC? What if journalists were swashbuckling, swaggering, hard-drinking warriors of truth?

The Dream of Poor Bazin is the story behind one of the greatest political intrigues in history. Maybe you read about it, or rather, what they let you read about it, probably as some minor item buried under the back page corrections among the dry-cleaning ads. What happened in DC during the administration of President Bill Lewis was so incredible that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive effort to save political careers from disaster.

Item: Young journalist Stephen Price Blair, up from Charlottesville, engages the three greatest reporters of his age in a barroom brawl within hours of his arrival in DC.

Item: A mysterious elder statesman absconds with Stephen’s letter of introduction to White House Press Secretary Bobby Trevor, leading Stephen on a wild chase throughout the beltway.

Item: Which young journalist with the eye of the President organized the controversial Salons4All symposium series at the Washington Post? Was it the same cub reporter whose landlord was escorted out of his seedy U Street apartment in handcuffs by the United States Postal Inspection Service?

Item: What band of intrepid journos located the missing Warren Fries briefcase—right under the noses of the United States Postal Inspection Service?

Item: If you’re a fan of Dumas’s great adventure or of Waugh’s satirical Scoop, you’ll love The Dream of Poor Bazin.

The Dream of Poor Bazin is the story of Stephen Price Blair’s first beats on the road to the White House Press Corps, all the sweeter for being his first, and all the wilder for being true.

COVID Lessons: The Health Care Shutdown—Wednesday, August 5th, 2020
Italian Hospital on CBS News

This is not a New York City hospital; it’s footage aired nearly a month earlier from Italy.

Milton Friedman apocryphally said that if we put the government in charge of a desert, we’d end up with a shortage of sand. Now, we see that in Michigan Governor Whitmer’s takeover of medical care—in the name of increasing hospital beds—is instead causing a shortage of hospitals. Whitmer, like many governors, shut down “elective surgeries”. Elective is a very dangerous misnomer—it doesn’t mean what it sounds like.

An elective surgery does not always mean it is optional. It simply means that the surgery can be scheduled in advance. It may be a surgery you choose to have for a better quality of life, but not for a life-threatening condition. But in some cases it may be for a serious condition such as cancer.

But shutting down elective surgeries, even the non-serious ones, also had another side effect: hospitals didn’t have enough work, and ended up laying off employees. In other words, government actions meant to increase the ability of hospitals to respond to the crisis worsened the ability of hospitals to respond.

The more evidence I see from COVID-19 studies, the more likely it becomes that this particular panic will go down in history as yet another example of the madness of crowds rather than a reasoned response to an epidemic. The fatality rate was never near the rate we thought it was when we were only testing people at risk of dying. It was a classic self-selection bias. The only places that approximated those predictions were in states where governors forced nursing homes to house the sick with the healthy. The only explanation for such behavior is madness.

But there will be a truly universal epidemic at some point, and it’s probably better that we failed badly on a COVID-19 than on a Spanish Flu. Despite all the people we killed by closing down hospitals and doctors and dentists, and all the lives destroyed by closing down people’s life’s work, the destruction would have been even worse if COVID-19 had been as bad as the experts said it was going to be. If we respond this way to a truly excessive disease, the death toll will be unimaginable.

White Supremacy: The Reincarnation of Stephen Douglas—Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020
White culture thumbnail

According to the Smithsonian, it is acting white to be rational, independent, and decisive.

The ideological parallels between Democrats in Lincoln’s time and the establishment white left today continue to amaze me. That non-whites are shiftless, aimless, unable to manage their resources, and so need a government overseer to make decisions for them, to direct their work, and that they, the white left, are ready and willing to take on this thankless job and so deserve the fruits of their charges’ labor, could have come straight from the mouth of a George Fitzhugh or a Stephen Douglas.

Douglas, the Democrat famous for the pro-slavery side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, argued that “the Negro” needed government overseers, because they were inferior to whites. They were incapable of “self-government”, he said. They couldn’t manage their affairs as whites could, they didn’t have the work ethic of whites, they couldn’t reason as well as whites.

All history has proved that in no part of the world, or the world's history, had the Negro ever shown himself capable of self-government… whenever any one man or set of men were incapable of taking care of themselves, they should consent to be governed by those who are capable of managing their affairs for them.

Surely, he rhetorically asked his Republican opponent, you wouldn’t say that blacks and whites are equal?

Yes I would, said Lincoln, although he did so in an I come here not to praise Caesar but to bury him sort of way.

…there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man… in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. — Abraham Lincoln (First Joint Debate at Ottawa)

Eager to Believe: Stupid Americans and Smart Corporations—Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
How many leftists to screw in a light bulb?

It seemed as though the left’s war against the middle class ramped up heavily during the COVID-19 shutdown. Whether it was denigrating middle-class workers, who are less able to work from home than the information class, or denigrating farmers and gardeners, who recognize that nature cannot be shut down and if you want to eat in the fall you must plant in the spring, they seemed to go all out attacking anyone who pointed out the insane nature of shutting down the very people we need most to help us through a crisis.

But I don’t think any of their social media jibes have been as blatant as this meme about A&W’s third-pound hamburger failure that I saw on Facebook during the shutdown:

“Describe Americans using a single picture”

Me: [photo of a hamburger]

[Text:] In the 1980s, A&W tried to compete with the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by selling a 1/3 pound burger at lower cost. The product failed, because most customers thought ¼ pound was bigger.1

Another weird thing about Americans is that there’s a special class that would rather believe that the majority of their fellow citizens are uneducated, than that a person—writing an unverified side note in a memoir—might misremember a focus group session from one or two decades past that they didn’t see and no longer have the report on.

Do a google search on third vs. quarter pound burgers, and you’ll see everything from “That’s not how fractions work” to “stop those people from reproducing.” The very article the quote probably came from is a New York Times article from 2014 titled “Why do Americans stink at math?

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Better for being ridden: the eternal lie of the anointed—Wednesday, July 1st, 2020
Childbirth 2000

(Lennart Nilsson, Omni, April 1979)

Every once in a while I run across something that makes me glad for the way history turned out. I’ve been slowly reading through the 1978-1979 issues of OMNI Magazine. In the April 1979 issue, Gena Corea has an article on what childbirth will be like in 2000.

Nativity A.D. 2000. Susan Rogers wants to give birth the old-fashioned way—vaginally. Since most hospital births are done by cesarean section, Susan decides, after her gynecologist confirms her pregnancy, to deliver at home. The midwife—midwives are illegal but omnipresent in America–screens her for risk factors. She finds none.

Toward the end of the pregnancy, while Susan and her husband are relaxing at their home in the woods of Brattleboro, Vermont, a helicopter swoops down and lands in the backyard. A physician and a policeman emerge from the machine and produce a court order authorizing them to take the unborn baby into protective custody to prevent child abuse. They force the screaming woman into the helicopter.

Corea’s twenty-first century was an era when women had transmitters surreptitiously inserted into their womb when their gynecologist confirmed a pregnancy. Childbirth at home was illegal. Not only could you be forced to give birth in a hospital, but the act of trying to avoid the hospital was child abuse. You could lose your child.

It’s a frightening vision of what sounds today like a science fiction dystopian future. The saying that the past is not another country, but another planet, is very apropos. In 1979 Corea’s vision was not an unreasonable prediction. The exact scenario, sans helicopter, happened in 1979 if parents tried to educate their children at home. When this article was written, homeschooling was illegal in every state except Nevada and Utah. The truancy laws were enforced zealously. You can still see remnants of it in old novels and movies. It wasn’t a stretch to project the same enforcement mechanisms to choices of how to birth your child that were already applied to how to educate your child.

Corea’s article appeared in Omni over a year before Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election. Government control was paramount and there was no evidence that either Democrats or Republicans were inclined to change that. Nixon, derided at the time as the far right, had instituted, under a law passed by Democrats, wage and price controls that the left only dreams of today. He eventually dropped wage controls and some price controls, but not all of them, and Carter maintained at least the price controls on energy production. This was all in the midst of a long-enduring economic downturn that defied all predictions of the experts, or at least the experts who recommended government control of people’s wages. Nowadays, we know better. But nowadays is not 1979—yet.

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