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.

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.

All Weed Weed Up!

Via Instapundit and Boing Boing, the L.A. Times posted an article showing all the quasi-legal marijuana joints in L.A. with a handy interactive map.

I first noticed one of these a month or two ago. I was driving and talking on a cell phone (it’s L.A., it’s the law) and I said, “Hey! I think that’s a medical marijuana shop!” I drove through the lot and saw the store was closed and looked abandoned. I thought maybe these places were supposed to look like dives.

But the map reveals this was a place that had its license denied or revoked. Looking at the map, the highest concentration of stores seems to coincide with the poorest areas with the highest crime.

I guess crime and poverty lead to glaucoma.

I am, of course, opposed to drug use, whether recreational, phoney-baloney medical—and in most cases, legitimate medical uses. (Drugs should be used short-term to keep someone alive; corrective measures should be applied as soon as possible to obviate the need for long-term drug use.)

But the sheer insanity of the current situation is almost comical. We have hundreds of legal stores—but some guy got arrested by the Feds because he grew it in his backyard?

It is funny, although in a blackly-comic sort of way: We “fight” drugs, which drives up the prices and makes criminals out of users, fills the prisons, creates powerful gangs and international drug cartels that contribute to the deterioration of our neighboring countries—all without affecting the actual amount of drug use.

Meanwhile, doctors prescribe psychotropic drugs of dubious value like candy, and people drink like fish while scarfing stimulants to get through their days.

Somehow that doesn’t add up to me.


Previously I linked to Knox’s comment where she linked to the Glenn and Helen show where they interview Robert Epstein on adolescence, and a test designed to measure how adult one is. As you can see here, I just got carried away snarking on the test, which is actually pretty interesting.

More importantly, I agree with the basic topic: Adolescence is a bad idea. I’ll never forget sitting down to my first college course and thinking, “WTF? We could have done this five years ago!”

Even allowing for my high level of comfort with school–I’m a chronic test taker, read for fun, quite good at sitting still for long periods, basically made for school–college is way too late for just about everyone. The Boy, while fine in school, is nowhere near as comfortable and casual about it as I was, and he’s doing just fine in his class. (And he got a strict teacher, he has to turn in his notes, etc. This will work out excellently for him in terms of giving him real world experience for taking more classes.)

Anyway, I love the way the guy, Epstein, attacks the “teen brain” thing. That kind of stuff–the sort of vague assertions made by some segment of brain scientists–always smacks of phrenology to me. Teenagers used to be plenty responsible. Inexperienced, but not stupid.

In fact, the most plausible suggestion I’ve heard about adolescence is that it was created by trade guilds (unions) as a way to eliminate competition.

Well, let’s be honest: It’s hard on the ego. If we let teens work, they’d end up being better at what we do than we are. I mean, sure, we have experience, but they have energy, alertness, enthusiasm–and putting them to work early is the best way to blunt that. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say.

Seriously, though: Teens will work hard, for little money, and they’re eager to assume more responsibility. Adults should be afraid of them entering the workplace sooner–they would threaten our ability to slack!

Of course, if we were shrewd and up to the challenge, we could harness their energy in useful ways, and create a brand new, powerful, responsible demographic, and use our experience to direct them in ways ushered in a new era of wealth for everyone.

As always, the kids are all right. It’s the adults that are the problem.

All The Awful Things That Ever Were

In response to the previous post on The Boy’s college career, Knox linked to the Glenn and Helen show where they interview Robert Epstein on adolescence, and a test designed to measure how adult one is.

I got an “"Adultness” Comepetency Score" of 90%. Double-scare quotes! The quotes around “Adultness” are theirs, mine are around the whole phrase. I’m pretty sure you have to be quite mature to use double-scare quotes.

The results page then lists your scores by subject matter. Of course, I’m an old time test-taker. I could get whatever score I wanted. I answered some of the questions “incorrectly” because I they were phrased badly.

For example, “You can earn a high school diploma by completing high school or passing an equivalency test. Do you agree?” Well, no, I don’t, because it’s not true. You can take the GED–though the current California system bars you from taking it pretty much until you’re 18, take that! you overachievers!–but even if you take the GED, you don’t have a high school diploma, and you won’t be treated like you do. (This is along the same lines of The Boy getting his MBA: Getting the sheepskin is about him having options should he need to get a job, even if his current plan is to be an employer rather than an employee.)

I thought it was amusing that I scored 100% on the “managing high-risk behaviors” section. This (for me) has nothing to do with being mature. I just don’t find most high-risk behaviors entertaining. I guess driving counts. But guns? Very few people are accidentally hurt by guns. Guns are meant to be deadly; power tools probably claim more casualties. Cars do by an order of magnitude.

I scored quite badly on the “physical abilities” section (56%). I see what they’re getting at: An adult realizes that he has to take care of his body. But even at my peak fitness, I never regarded myself as “strong” or “flexible”. Those things are relative. And I tend to look at those things–not just physical fitness, but also intelligence–in terms of where they fail (almost always sooner than where I’d like).

Kinda sucks that poor health makes you less adult than a teenage football player.

The more legit one is “Personal Care”. Legit in the sense of being less a relative use of words, versus actually being accurate. My score there was 78%, but I know it’s because I sacrifice elements of personal care (sleep, in particular) for my children. And I suppose most people don’t really have to do that regularly, but the questions are completely context free, and any adult knows that there are plenty of circumstances where you do sacrifice optimum personal behaviors for your children.

But then, as an adult, I know better than to put much stock in an Internet quiz.

This Guy…

…is so gettin’ some:

“Apparently the guy was getting ready to rape his girlfriend. So he told the girls to get down and he started shooting. The guy jumped out of the window,” said Bailey.

Hell, the guys should be queuing up.

Seriously, though, he missed the second guy. More time at the range. The would-be rapist has been picked up, allegedly.

No word on whether College Park is a gun-free zone or if the student who saved the lives of his ten friends would be prosecuted.

We Can’t Have Nice Things

A new commenter came by and commented on an old post I had about the weirdness of IMDB movie ratings, which is a topic I’ve mentioned not too long ago. When I first logged on to IMDB, the top-rated movie was The Godfather, and it had a 7.8.

I had always thought the main distortion on IMDB was simple inflation. “Oh, Godfather is a 7.8, eh? Well, then, Glitter must be at least an 8! And Godfather should be a 1!” And this leads to a vicious cycle, where people aren’t ranking movies according to their own preferences, but against others’.

And it made me think of Susan Boyle, who got a record breaking number of views on YouTube, and the article I was reading talked about how “Evolution of Dance” was suspected of being the most viewed video, but that fans of various musical groups set up tricks to increase the view count for their favorite acts.

Then I thought over Wikipedia, which has limited utility from all the bias. Then Althouse comment threads–and Althouse has among the best commenters–which people go in with the sole purpose to create noise. Twitter has a pretty good system for reducing noise, but you can still get lots of spam.

And I think to myself: This is why we can’t have nice things.

Seriously, all the social web things are cool. The open-ness of them, the facilitating of mashups and unexpected uses. But the difficult balance to strike is allowing contributions and also disallowing them.

Twitter works because following is easy but not automatic. Unfollowing is only slightly harder, which is to say, not hard at all. But Twitter lacks continuity and intimacy. (That may be an artifact of Twitter versus a necessary result of the following process.) It’s also a chaotic stream that is only manageable because you can limit it.

I was struck by that old meme of the mom pulling out hair because the kids knocked over her expensive vase by playing ball in the house where she laments, “We can’t have nice things.” The social web often reminds me of that. That and the sort of nouveaux “tragedy of the commons”, which isn’t about consuming resources, but controlling the ones that command attention.

I think something like Twitter could be evolved with multiple streams and nesting, possibly around little nodes, which could be links to blogs, or could be long “tweets”. But these would exist in the common space, perhaps with separate streams for different responders, even. Something less monolithic than Twitter.

I don’t know. I suspect we’re not done with the whole social web thing. But the real trick is trying to figure out how to have nice things.

Dead Men Throw No Switches

So I started doing the nutritional program in earnest, along with The Boy, and got a bit of a scare. It’s probably nothing, and may be related to the antibiotics I’m taking (for the ear infection from hell), but I’ll be having a thorough medical examination as a result. 

It’s not really something I look forward to. 
But it got me thinking about my mortality and taking care of business. Death isn’t something I fear, generally. When younger, I had some brushes with mortality to which my reaction was “Well, I guess if it’s my time…" 
I know that we get a sense of invulnerability, immortality, that nothing bad can happen to us, but there’s also the "who cares?” aspect of it. When you’re young you consider yourself sovereign over your life, and if you’re going to do something reckless well, what’s that to anyone else? You can see young death glamorized in a way that mortality otherwise is not.
And then you have kids. 
Well, crap. Now it matters if you live or die. (And if you’re thinking, you realize it mattered before–back when you were SuperTeen–to your own parents. A feeling of embarrasment is normal at this point.) I mean, the finances are easy enough to handle. In fact, the traditional male role is easy to fill: I think a widow with children can probably much more easily plug in a new male into her life than a widower is likely to find a woman willing to take care of another woman’s home and children. And how much more traumatic is that, that the primary caretaker be replaced by a relative stranger?
Of course, it happened a lot in the Old West (for example), with mortality in child birth being so common. And certainly it’s happened that a step-father has a callous and indifferent (or worse) attitude toward another man’s children.
Anyway, having a kid changes the game, if you were indifferent to your survival before. If you’re cancerous and would rather just let it take you than endure the medieval treatments we have for handling it, you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to fight. Congratulations: You’ve become more important than yourself.
It should also mean that you’re not exposing yourself to a lot of unnecessary risk, like extreme sports, daredevil ballon rides, base jumping, etc. But that doesn’t always happen.
Given the rather severe separation of my online life versus my real one, I’ve often thought about setting up a “dead man’s switch” that would notify people should I not throw it. I figured the most likely result of that, though, would be a false “Blake’s dead!” message. Heh. That might be funny once or twice, but sort of defeats the purpose should it happen a lot.
There’s now at least one service that will do this for you, I think. It’s been in the news a lot lately. But I suspect a lot of us don’t give enough thought on how online folks would be affected by our sudden disappearance. (I’ve had it happen numerous times, and I don’t know to this day whether the person just dropped out or something had happened to them.)
So, it’s something worth thinking about.

Planned Irrelevance

Somebody tweeted about this today: It’s called the “Congressional Effect Fund”. It’s a mutual fund premised on the idea that Congress destroys wealth. That’s putting your money where your mouth is, eh? Or rather, where their mouths ain’t.

I don’t know enough about how this stuff works to know if they can actually minimize their exposure on non-Congress days, and I do sort of wonder whether, if something like this took off, it wouldn’t end up creating distorting effects.

But it is interesting from the standpoint of “libertarian optimism” we were talking about before.

Also interesting are the various cities and states (AP snark warning on that state link) resisting the current power grab.

Could we build a society around the Federal government? In-between? In the unregulated and unregulate-able nooks and crannies?

To an extent, the “black market” or “underground economy” ( has always flourished in supressive times–and regulations are suppressive, however necessary they may be–and, in a totalitarian environment, the black market is often the only market there is.

By the way, another word for “underground economy” is “free market”.

I’m not an OUTLAW like some people, but it doesn’t take much to realize that people will seek to survive and to improve their conditions, and if the environment works against them they will push back against the environment, escape the environment or operate under the table (which is a form of escape after all).

Technology can play a big hand here: Even while it gets harder to start a business due to regulation, technology can make it cheaper than ever.

The real question is whether you can work in your current physical space well enough to fight the creeping, smothering embrace of government–or whether you need to move to a new, less paternalistic locale.

Libertarian Optimism

“Expecting Washington to cut back its main instrument of power after a capitalism-bashing political campaign is like expecting Michael Moore to share his Egg McMuffin with a homeless man.”

The above from a piece by Gillespie and Welch which is remarkably optimistic given the massive spending. Bankruptcy could lead to–must inevitably lead to?–greater responsibility and less spending and control? Maybe? Dunno.

John Stossel is less sanguine.

It’s true that technology–far from the oppressor imagined by Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury–has mostly had a salubrious effect on liberty. Which is not to say that there aren’t victims.

Gillespie and Welch’s premise seems to be that, in many ways, people are becoming accustomed to tremendous freedom, especially through the ‘net. (We are all anarchists now, after a fashion.) This, in turn, will lead to draining of political power.

That might could be. (Yes, “might could”. Gotta problem with that?)

It’s certainly a nice thought. I think I’ll adopt it. See how it grows.

Darcy asked me the other day if I was optimistic, with regard to people and events. Not exactly. With people, I prefer to dwell on their better aspects. Their worst aspects are likely to be banal, but the ways in which they excel or thrive are more likely to be interesting and useful. (Unless, I suppose, one is an extortionist.)

There’s an optimism one adopts when taking on a project. The idea is that it should succeed. That’s why one generally bothers at all. (And I do the occasional project that I know will “fail” because its success is separate from what I’m trying to get out of it.)

But for large events–society-wide events–history is a bit of a buzzkill. Here we are, in this Golden Age–for surely it is a Golden Age, warts and all–when history demonstrates that all such ages pass, and sooner rather than later. And it’s so easy to see–or at least think we see–the reasons why.

But what else can one do but try to stop that, at least until things get so bad the ship must be abandoned?

That doesn’t sound very optimistic, though, does it?