Cargo Cult Christmas

The great visionary Alan Kay once compared the dot-Com goldrush (while it was still going on) to a cargo cult. This was one of those big “a-ha” moments in this moron’s life. I’d heard of cargo cults but had just thought of it as an amusing story. If you follow that Wikipedia link, you can see a sort of apologetic tone about how “an isolated society’s first contact with the outside world…can be a shock”.

But what the dot-Com mania showed was that there’s nothing about the mentality that’s exclusive to primitive societies. People figured if they bought a clever domain name, wealth would follow. Some had worked out an extra step, of course:

1. Buy Domain Name
2. Attract Investor Dollars
3. ???
4. Profit!

And, of course, some of them never thought past step 2. After all, once investors give you lots of money, you’re done, right?

In short, the fundamental issue is a lack of understanding of relationship between cause and effect. Hell, forget about airplanes, a small island culture would probably have a harder time imagining the logistics—the massive industrial and social machinery—behind a military supply drop. You’d first have to get them to grasp the concept of millions of people.

While the dot-Com bubble was doubtless motivated by the same burning desire for unearned material wealth as the island chief’s, the dot-Com guys had no comparable excuse. Regardless of the medium, the basics of trade don’t change: You have to offer people something they want before they give you money; and if it’s something they can already get, you have to offer more, like a lower price, higher quality, greater convenience or better service.

These are not mysterious things, yet if you were watching the madness ten years ago, you saw a 10-year-old company whose increasingly commoditized product was losing market share hand-over-fist buy out a media powerhouse that made its 75-year fortune on essentially unique product—and you also saw this hailed as a great move for the media powerhouse.

Once my eyes were opened to this parallel, I began seeing cargo cults everywhere. Because they are everywhere. And we’re probably all guilty of cause-effect confusion to some degree, in some areas of our lives.

As a rather bizarre example, in our culture you can see cargo cult religions (of all denominations), where people mimic the practices of religion while eschewing anything not immediately gratifying, anything that requires sacrifice, or anything that would actually bind people together, as religion is supposed to do. (Then they’re surprised when there’s nothing there in their time of need.)

But sometimes it’s harmless and even kind of cute, when done with awareness. Sports fans, for example, will be very superstitious when rooting for their teams, wearing same clothes or eating the same food or performing some ritual because that’s what happened the last time the team made a big score. This is more a knowing game of pretending to have a power (in a situation where you really can’t) than a genuine cargo cult mentality. Or so one hopes. (Athletes themselves will have such superstitions, but they don’t forgo training for them.)

Oftentimes it’s pernicious and destructive, and completely backwards. The idea, for example, of focusing on building self-esteem by giving a child the rewards associated with self-esteem. This creates a sense of entitlement combined with a very fragile ego—a less functional combination hard to imagine.

You can probably see where I’m headed with this.

We have before us this Christmas the most astounding example of a cargo cult I can recall in my lifetime: We have a government that doesn’t even understand their own flawed philosophy, mimicking the destructive actions (which had observably bad ends) without even grasping the logic behind them.

For example, the current administration has reduced Keynesian theory (which Keynes himself didn’t fully accept) to “throw money all over the place, especially to our friends and good things will happen.”

Same with health care: “Pass some laws—any laws—and health care will be ‘solved’.” The very passage of the laws themselves seems to have been backwards “Let’s talk about how we’ve won and celebrate the passing of these laws, then we’ll work on getting them passed. ” (Consider the number of times Harry Reid proclaimed he had reached a consensus.)

Even the compromises emerged not from the idea of giving-and-taking on substance so that ultimately everyone could vote for something that was good enough, but by cajoling the “yeas” through any means necessary, no matter how bad a bill was created.

There’s no grasp of cause-and-effect.

The frosting on this Christmas cookie being the philosophies that are being aped were never very successful either. FDR’s “stimulus” may have been neutral, but the regulatory atmosphere—the atmosphere of wild experimentation, was demonstrably harmful. And even as real job creators today say they’re reluctant to hire in such an unpredictable environment, it’s not enough to spread money around, the administration has to show that it’s willing to stick its fingers everywhere.

You don’t need a litany of what the tax, regulate, redistribute process has done to the American economy. The War on Poverty created a permanent underclass, and the War on Drugs created a massive criminal class. The current War on Health (as I suggest we christen it) will have similarly dubious effects. (Even if the current mess doesn’t pass, would you, as a young person, be eager to go into medicine in this environment?)

At some point, one has to wonder if the actual cause-and-effect of freedom and stability leading to prosperity isn’t very well understood by a lot of those working to undermine it.

At least that’s what I’m wondering as I sit under my Christmas tree, singing carols, waiting for presents to appear.

Blog Wars

Hello, everyone!

Sorry for the long absence. I’ve been hard at work looking for work to be hard at work at. I’m going to be part-time at the current job (which didn’t stop them from giving me two new, huge projects to do) which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, if I get another PT job or consulting gig, that’s a kind of security and potentially more money. On the other hand, if I get a FT gig, that can mean things like going into an office and wearing clothes and stuff. (Shudder.)

I’ve got two other projects with potential going, so I’m working on those as well. It’s just busy.

Which is my whiny excuse for not posting reviews on An Education and Everybody’s Fine yet. I will, though, soon. Promise.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching the Goldstein/Patterico wars, which I hate. I actually unfollowed Patterico on Twitter because his attacks strike me as both petty and strident.

To summarize, Patterico said that Stacy McCain had made a racist statement (over ten years ago!) but may or may not be actually racist himself. Goldstein, on a pretty straightforward point of logic says, no, there cannot be racism without intent. You can’t say someone made a racist comment but may or may not be racist. Patterico then talks about “unconscious” racism, etc. etc. etc.

I feel for Patterico because he’s parroting what we’ve all learned, isn’t he? We’ve all learned over the years that white people, in particular, are racist (even if only unconsciously so) and their willingness to use words that others deem racist is proof of that. I mean, we’ve all lived through the kabuki of constantly changing names/titles/designations to prove the purity of our intentions. And we’ve all lived through (and accepted) the gradual loss of our freedoms to do the same.

Volokh himself talks about this in the terms of the First Amendment here. Like Volokh, I want people to be free to express their prejudices. I don’t want them cloaked in PC talk. I don’t want a ritual that is used to demonstrate the right thinking; I want what people think to be right out there in their speech and associations. Then I can choose whom I want to associate with. (And you know what? A lot of racism and other faulty -isms actually do yield to logic, but you never learn that when people just know it’s taboo to discuss certain things.)

But despite the simple truth of Goldstein’s argument—I mean, really, to argue that racism doesn’t need to be intended by the racist is to argue that it’s an actual substance with physical properties that can be identified by climate scientistsproperly annointed clergyright thinking people—Patterico has instead doubled-down, defending the most heinous corruption of our ability to communicate.

It’s not the first time he’s done this, and it’s a shame, because he does really good work calling out the L.A. Times on their biases, errors and general buffoonery. But as Goldstein points out (again and again): if you accede the ability to decide what you meant to another agency, you lose if ever you decide to go against that agency. (Said agencies, not remarkably, are always statists, and these days, they’re on the left. It wasn’t so long ago they were establishment Christians and other social conservatives who wanted the state to interfere on behalf of their causes—the whole problem with the old order, when you think of it.)

Anyway, Goldstein absolutely skewers him with a two part demonstration on exactly how Frey’s logic can be used against him. But Patterico seems to have a hard time with being wrong. Either that, or far worse, he doesn’t want to let intention get in the way of his own ability to exercise power over others by misconstruing their speech.

Nah, he’s probably just being pigheaded.

Meanwhile, I’m going to get back to reviewing stuff.

In Which I Suspect The Free Market Of Not Being Entirely Free

Interesting anecdote from Reason on how Canadian health care treated one woman, or rather failed to treat her, along with a doctor who puts up a price list on his website about what things cost. I tracked the website down and noted an interesting thing.

Some of you know that my dad was in the hospital a month ago. As it turns out, they gave him angioplasty (through the femoral artery, yeow!). If you go to that site, you’ll see angioplasty costs $12,500.

That’s expensive, but not unmanageable. Presumably, one wouldn’t need a lot of angioplasty. And catastrophic coverage well, wouldn’t need to be all that huge to cover it.

Now, my dad’s two days in the hospital cost $140,000.

Frankly, that seems unpossible to me. Who could possibly afford that? How can something exist in a market that nobody could afford?

I suspect there may be market distortions at work.

If one wanted to fix the health care market, one might start by locating the distortions and removing them.

Just a thought.

Today Is Not That Day, Part 7: Sex, Lies and Videotape

Yeah. No. I don’t think so. This will not be the day I mourn for the children who are not in schools.

Miz Malkin, the first. You know, I heard so much about how great Catcher In The Rye was in my teens. I remember Rossi from “The Lou Grant Show” talking about how it got him through high school. I also remember being singularly unimpressed by it when I read it. I still don’t know why it’s an assigned book.

Miz Malkin, the second. Yeah! Let’s get our Zinns on, people! You always know you’re in for a treat when reading a book supposedly about facts, where the author openly disdains objectivity. Remember, people, you’re too stupid to take in the facts of history and weigh them appropriately. You need someone like Zinn to tell you what’s important, and leave out all the flashy, superficial stuff like technological progress, philosophies that promote the welfare of all men, and so on.

I sometimes think you could lock a kid in a closet for eight hours and have them be better off than they’d be in school.

Games and Life

“Nice civilization you’re building for someone else there.”

Freeman Hunt forwarded me this (somewhat hard to read) set of notes from the G4C conference. (There’s an interesting story about Zynga and real-life donations on that G4C link. I’ve been studying Zynga for a while and have a post brewing about it.)

As I was reading it, I thought of the above quote, which I read on the Apolyton forums years ago, regarding the game Civilization. Some poor sap had developed this gorgeous civilization powered by art and culture (Civ 3 introduced the ability to conquer cities via culture) and was fretting because the cretins around him—with their pathetic attempts at art—had instead built up massive armies of guys with pointed sticks.

He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

And what I wondered at that point is whether or not the popularity of the computer strategy game might not have a profound impact on people’s philosophies regarding the nature of war.

As noted in the pseudo-transcript above, games are models, and they have some limited value in their real-life application. Civ 3 was very good at emulating historical trends (at least as we perceive them from here, which is very skewed, but that’s another story) such that industrialism, nationalism and treaties would almost always lead to massive world wars.

This, by the way, feeds into my prejudice about computer climate models. Civilization does a better job “predicting” the past than climate models do (but an awful job predicting the future).

But whatever the limitations, there is one thing that is true in every strategy game: The surest way to invite war is to not develop militarily.

The motivations are (one would hope) not exactly the same: Strategy games tend to be zero sum. If you conquer the world in Civ with a bunch of rock-wielding cavemen, well, you’ve still conquered the world. The game ends at that point, with you victoriously ruling the stone ages.

Nonetheless, it only takes one guy—one Attila or Genghis or Napoleon—to convince his people that, yeah, they pretty much should be running the show, to turn a bunch of weakly defended countries into fuel for a war machine.

Peace (for you) is only assured by being substantially stronger than the other guys.

Another interesting evolution in the Civ games is that while you may be hated if you’re very powerful, people will act nice to your face. If you’re weak, you’ll be openly loathed, extorted and eventually conquered.

It’s not just Civilization, though: Every 4x game I can think of (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) has the same basic rule. If you want peace, you have to make war an unpleasant prospect for others.

The modern 4X game is only about 15 years old, and Civilization not quite 20, but it’s not hard to imagine that the lessons they teach might have an impact in coming years.

Rape vs. Cuckoldry

In what seems to me to be a shining example of “us vs. them” syndrome, a debate is going on about which is worse being raped, or being cuckolded (in the biological sense of raising another man’s child). Via Instapundit. Arguments are being made based on financial costs, emotional damage, etc.

But the only point in having this debate is to try to score a point against the opposite sex. Just as men and women are different, they have different ways of hurting each other. Even if one is “worse” than the other by some standard, it doesn’t really say anything by itself about the conflicts between men and women.

Just as I think collectivism makes for bad government, I think it also makes for a bad way to try to resolve interpersonal issues. One should worry materially less about what “men” do and what “women” do than what the particular men and women in one’s life do.

The kids have been on a real “King of the Hill” kick lately. That show, if you’ve never seen it, features a character, Dale, whose son Joseph is clearly not his. Dale is a comical character, cowardly and stupid, and his cuckolding by his wife played for laughs in both his and others’ inability to see the obvious. (Joseph is around 14 through most of the series, and Dale’s wife’s affair is still going on when the series starts.)

But from the start, Dale’s devotion to his son (such as it is) is the bedrock of the family. And as the series progresses and his wife rededicates herself to him, it turns out to be Joseph’s real father who ends up lonely and isolated, watching his son grow up to admire and emulate another man.

It’s a very funny show, but I don’t think I’ve seen the topic handled more thoroughly and sensitively anywhere else. And I think it’s more interesting than trying to figure out who hurts who more, men or women. Because I think we all do a pretty good job of that—and keeping score is probably just going to make us all look bad.

Idiot With A Pencil 2: Faeries

When The Boy was young, he invented a game called “Paper Wars”, whereby we would draw an assortment of monsters on paper and then engage them in battle. The Boy’s mind was such that he was always making games. However, his explanation of the (always lengthy, convoluted) rules was enough to render people (literally!) unconscious.

The Flower dabbled in such complex rules for a bit, but lacked the somnolent powers of her elder brother. In any case, when we draw, I quite naturally draw things I think will interest her.

So, a session or two ago, I drew a faerie. This is sort of uncharacteristic of me. I usually go for the goofy, or the weird or the comical. I don’t have the discipline, most of the time, to really clearly envision something and hold that image in my mind long enough to draw it.

I scanned this one in—and this is another area where I’m weak, trying to figure out how to transfer something to digital form—and it came out overly light:

Then I sharpend it, which made the colors a little truer, but which also exaggerated all the minor shadings:

Anyway, The Flower liked it, which is all that matters.

The Fearless Tooth Fairy Vampire Killer

I was at my mom’s not too long ago listening to a debate between The Flower and her cousin, wherein The Flower vigorously defended the existence of such non-corporeal creatures as Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and so on.

The Cousin, who is quite opinionated on, well, everything, was raised for most of her life in some sort of Mennonite sect. 19th century clothing, little exposure to any sort of electronic media, and The Man In The Red Suit.

Let me step back a bit: I have been, in my life, quite strident on the matter of honesty between parents and children. At least, I’m pretty sure I have. I’ve been strident on a lot of things, so this was probably one of them. At the same time, I’ve always been a big fan of letting kids work things out for themselves.

So, when The Boy started talking Santa, I dealt with it the same way I dealt with other things, “People say…” or “That’s what they tell me.” Also, “I don’t know” and “How could that be?” have been useful.

But, but, but—factually speaking, Blake, factually, you do know.

And yet, I never even gave some things a thought. The Boy used to be concerned about vampires, so I told him I had killed them all. It wasn’t like he was going to believe there weren’t vampires, so I told him what he could believe: That I had removed the threats he was worried about. (Which I had, when you think about it.)

In fact, I used to see monsters. The Boy loved monsters, so I’d suddenly look to one side and put on a big show of having seen on running across the yard. When I crawled under the house to network it, I called up in the voices of different monsters.

The Boy, who has had problems with his health and energy his whole life, would light up like a million watt light bulb when I did this.

The Flower, on the other hand, boxed us into an even more interesting corner: She wrote to the Tooth Fairy. Well, really, what could I do? The Tooth Fairy had to write back! The two have exchanged forty letters over the course of a couple of years.

When I was a child, I’m told that I was very upset on discovering the factual nature of Santa Claus, but my dad claims to have this discussion with me about it. I was beating on him and yelling “You lied to me!” And he said, “Well, okay, but you had fun, didn’t you?”

Yeah. I had fun.

And I’m still having fun. The Boy gets what we do and why, and the Flower will, too. (That time is nearing, and I’m already missing it.) When The Barb’s preferences become clear, be they the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin, I’ll be there quietly encouraging her to enjoy it.

I’m much less interested in a semantic debate over whether this can and should be called “lying” versus the impact it can have on children.

I adore my niece but she’s a joyless child. Her emotions are muted and flat, and she often strikes me as being an old person in a tiny body. I’ve never seen her get excited over anything. She’s a know-it-all who does poorly in school, despite the service paid to “truth”. And I don’t attribute this to Santa, one way or the other, but creation is joy, and frankly, few things are more traditional than for parents to try to crush out that joy by burdening a child with “reality”, when “reality” is all too often the same tired notions about the world that have been crushing joy from the beginning of time.

“Put away those foolish notions,” says the parent, and so shuts the door on a better and more interesting future.

And (as I say with my niece) it’s not just Santa: Parents who are so convinced they have the one and only grasp on reality aren’t just taking that from their kids; they’re taking the kid’s right to create his own reality, mistakes and all. You could foster a love for all things fantastic (or not yet real) without Santa; people have and do.

But your reasons shouldn’t be “because it’s a lie”. When you tell a kid a story, he’s going to internalize it, whether you tell him it’s true or not. Nobody told me superheroes were real, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be one. Nobody tells kids that their toys are “real”, yet kids imbue them with life and personality and character conflicts, with more conviction than the average adult believes that the person standing in front of him has a real life and personality.

I mean, do you feel the need to go around and remind the kid that her Barbie Dream House isn’t real, and anyway, Barbie couldn’t possibly afford it unless Ken’s her sugar daddy? I mean, realistically.

Kids have their own realities. As a parent, you can hardly help but squash them, but it’s nothing to be proud of. And in service to what? A reality you’re so convinced is true and worthwhile, it merits cutting off an entire avenue of joy for your child?

Shame on you.

And I just add this last part to prove that I can be strident in the service of something I was previously very strident against.