Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 30, 2020

Four Things

1. Tom Lehrer fans take note. The good news is that the mathematician-satirical musician has, for all practical purposes, made his music public domain. The bad news is that we'll have only until the end of 2024 to download it.

Probably not talking about maps... (Image by Taisiia Stupak, via Unsplash, license.)
2. Whether you need to settle a bar bet or just like maps, you might like MapFight, which interactively compares areas of maps in its database. For example, my nearest large city, Jacksonville, covers nearly three times the area of New York City, and over two thirds that of Rhode Island.

In fact, the site has an entire page of comparisons with the largest city (by area) in the lower 48.

3. Checking on news of Hurricane Zeta, I smiled when I learned that it was business as usual -- almost -- at Biloxi's Golden Nugget casino the whole time:
The Golden Nugget announced Wednesday afternoon it would remain open throughout the day and evening, with limitations to its menu.

"We ask that anyone already visiting our property or considering a trip to follow the National Hurricane Center for updates, and to avoid traveling to or from our property during the storm, as hurricane conditions and road flooding may present dangerous travel conditions," the casino said on Facebook.
Footage from the bottom level of the hotel's garage had me scratching my head, though: If you're going to gamble all night during a hurricane in a low-lying area, don't park on ground level.

4. When I was in academia, I used a very early version of this literature management software, and it was neat then. But pharma blogger Derek Lowe reports a very impressive new feature:
A red banner appeared across the top with a notice that a paper that I had in one of my collections had been retracted. That's pretty handy: a red X now appears next to the paper, and it's also part of a new folder that the program created ("Retracted Items") I was naturally curious to see what paper it was that I'd found interesting that was now being pulled, and was surprised to find that it was a high-profile publication ... on protein degradation.
Yes. You can now be automatically alerted about retractions in Zotero.

-- CAV

A Two-Minute Defrost?

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Image by Marcelo Leal, via Unsplash, license.
Over at Hacker News (HN), I learned of a short post describing a productivity hack that looks like it could be helpful to overcome inertia.

The blogger calls it the Two Minute Rule, raising some hackles in the HN discussion thread, at least among devotees of David Allen's GTD methodology.

By my recollection, Allen's Two Minute Rule was to do any task that takes that amount of time (or less) immediately whenever possible. That's because two minutes is about how long it would take to enter the task into one's system with the view of performing it later, anyway.

In any event, the idea strikes me as a way to overcome initial resistance and build some momentum, so I plan to try it some time, and I'm passing it along.

Here it is:
Whenever you find it hard to get started on a task, consider scaling it down into a 2-minute version.
The author, Hoanh, provides a short list of examples, like reading a page as the two-minute version of reading a book.

Some of the HN discussion raises the possibility that the short version of the tasks helps one gain clarity about a next action, and I can see this for some kinds of tasks. But my best guess is that this is usually an inertia- or reluctance-breaking tactic.

-- CAV

Bring Me ... Problem Statements?

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

You've doubtless heard the business saying, "Don't bring me problems. Bring me solutions." I certainly have, and I was glad I did when I did: It helped me understand why once I landed in minor hot water after bringing up a problem at a meeting, way back when I was a junior officer in the Navy. I realized that it was obvious then that I hadn't thought of possible causes or solutions.

Good on me for noticing something nobody else had flagged, and for bringing it up. But offering a solution or thoughts that could have helped create one would have been much better. (My delivery was bad in other ways, but that's a story for another day.)

This all sounds good until you read a piece by Sabina Nawaz of Harvard Business Review titled, "The Problem with Saying 'Don't Bring Me Problems, Bring Me Solutions.'"

She raises some issues worthy of consideration, to say the least. One of them is that the idea can cause people to not report problems:

Image by Campaign Creators, via Unsplash, license.
Consider the example of one of my clients, James (not his real name), who is the president of a company working on a disruptive service in his industry. He often has an unpleasant reaction when staff raises problems. His team members told me that if they raise an issue or risk, James often hears failure and reacts by losing his temper and raising his voice. The outbursts hurt morale and often cause his team members to lose enthusiasm toward projects and become hesitant to mention problems to James. As a result, James's team only provides him with good news about initiatives they're working on, leaving James blind to any potential issues. They also spend a lot of time in each other's offices, licking their wounds after James' outbursts, instead of being productive.
Oops. I can even see the younger me, on hearing the saying too early, seriously wondering whether I should have reported the problem -- non-critical in my then not-always great judgement -- at all.

This doesn't make the saying useless, but it does underscore that its value is highly contextual, and that managers need to take care that their intent is well-understood. Perhaps the saying is better kept in mind than spoken aloud.

In any event, Nawaz gives three broad suggestions for making the reporting of problems a smoother and more productive process for managers and those who report to them. The last two, presenting the matter in the form of a problem statement, and finding the right person to solve it, sound like they would be useful for everyone. The first, "make it safe," is also good to keep in mind, but is probably more important for some than for others.

-- CAV

ARI Hands Life-Saving Story to Grey Lady

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

In his recent column, "When Libertarianism Goes Bad," Paul Krugman probably manages to get many of his readers to think that opposition to mask mandates and "quarantines" of the healthy could only come from a stark degree of ignorance, gullibility, or evil.

Such a conclusion would be understandable, but wrong. To be sure, the blurb is correct: Liberty doesn't mean freedom to infect other people. But the rest of the column comes across as a rehash of tired tropes and stereotypes -- culminating in this:

But why does this keep happening? Why does America keep making the same mistakes?

Donald Trump's disastrous leadership is, of course, an important factor. But I also blame Ayn Rand -- or, more generally, libertarianism gone bad, a misunderstanding of what freedom is all about.
I won't waste my time defending Donald Trump, or any other politician. They have -- left and right -- been almost uniformly horrendous. And I won't deny that lots of people are confused about the issue of masks or what liberty means.

It's Krugman's scapegoating of another figure I take issue with. Consider the below, and what Krugman might mean by saying it:
I blame Ayn Rand.
If he actually believes this, Paul Krugman should welcome and widely broadcast the correction he has recently received from ARI (as noted below). If not, it speaks volumes that he would, during a time lives are at stake for need of knowledge, spread such an easily debunked falsehood.

As I mentioned in passing recently, the Ayn Rand Institute, which is devoted to studying Ayn Rand's ideas and applying them to the problems of our day, crafted a white paper titled "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease" on the proper role of government during an epidemic.

In fact, ARI did this months ago and has been doing its best to get the word out. This document opposes deliberately or negligently infecting someone else with a potentially fatal pathogen.

Not only that, it argues that the government should take steps to stop this from occurring -- in the name of protecting liberty -- and outlines how it should do so, besides. A side effect Krugman should be happy to hear about is that such policies would likely have saved countless lives.

As Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute points out in a Letter-to-the-Editor in reply to Krugman:
Image by Lora Ohanessian, via Unsplash, license.
What would Rand's philosophy of reason, selfishness and capitalism actually guide us to do in the pandemic? The answer is detailed in an essay from the Ayn Rand Institute: A proper government would scientifically test, track and isolate carriers of Covid-19 and leave non-carriers free to live and adopt the precautions they think necessary.

Like Taiwan, America could have effectively contained the pandemic, long ago. Ayn Rand's conception of liberty would be saving lives. [link in original]
The Times has as its motto "All the news that's fit to print," and Krugman protests the American pandemic death toll. The paper should do more than simply print a short LTE regarding this gross error, and Krugman should either apologize for his error or offer a substantial argument against the ARI proposal.

American governments at all levels have variously, for example: ruled by edict, grossly violated our personal liberty (most notably by indefinite mass home detentions, aka "lockdowns"), impeded medical progress (such as by the FDA keeping rapid tests for contagiousness out of our hands), and failed to perform the simple, proper steps outlined by the ARI paper.

Worse, the best-known policy challenge amounts to a national chickenpox party. There is a better way, and, in the face of a defamatory statement, ARI has just spelled out such an alternative to the Times.

If there isn't a story more fit to print, I don't know what it is. And if there isn't a better way to save lives -- through a proper understanding of liberty -- I don't know what that is, either.

-- CAV

Structuring Procrastination

Monday, October 26, 2020

For the second time in a couple of years -- I know it's the second time thanks to the magic of bookmarking. -- I have encountered a partly tongue-in-cheek essay titled, "Structured Procrastination."

Among the chuckles, and after the observation that "Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things," it contains the following germ of a productivity hack:

The author speaks of playing ping-pong. Perhaps he should have had some recreation time on his list. Perhaps he did. (Image by Ilya Pavlov, via Unsplash, license.)
Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Let's momentarily set aside immediately obvious questions like, How do the most important things ever get done? and disturbing ones that come later, like Why not address the issue of self-deception?

And let's further consider the fact the author notes that many procrastinators end up doing essentially nothing: "This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being."

What I like about the essay is its suggestion of the use of lists as a means of mitigating a bout of procrastination. This can be a good strategy for the following two reasons:
  1. The thing one ends up doing gives a much better answer to compared to what? than something like watching television; and
  2. One can do things to make checking the lists into an easier default than, say, opening a web browser, so that it becomes one of the easiest alternatives to whatever it is one is supposed to be doing.
Indeed, as I looked up the Matt Might article (second link in list) upon remembering what he said about lowering transaction costs, I discovered that his advice -- scroll upwards from that -- is quite similar. He calls it procrastinating productively.

As for self-deception? I take this to be loose speaking in the same vein as advice like "Fake it 'til you make it." Yes, the author discusses things one could describe as "playing chicken with deadlines," but he's an academic, and there are lots of things like that in academia, where there often seems to be an unwritten rule about deadlines not being real. Also common in academia, are folks who aren't good at planning and tasks that can't be/aren't easy to time-block.

In such cases, this seems like a roundabout way to deal with such a problem. I think of this all as a way to work around a mental block one doesn't immediately understand or know how to resolve than actual (and immoral) self-deception. (Obviously, one should be alert to the same kind of problem cropping up repeatedly: That's a cue that it's time for an effort to understand and a more direct solution.)

In sum, I'm going to add look at my to-do lists to the things I do when I am stuck as an explicit strategy. The times I have done this more or less by accident have been helpful: Why not use it deliberately?

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 23, 2020

Blog Roundup

1. At Thinking Directions, Jean Moroney asks, "What is missing from your plan for the day?" Here is a small, but crucial, part of her answer:

Seize the day by greeting it properly. (Image by Mohamed Nohassi, via Unsplash, license.)
Knowing the reason for your plan lets you judge objectively whether to change the plan. It ensures you know the assumptions built into the plan. When something unexpected comes up, you'll be able to judge whether it is relevant or irrelevant to the goal. Does it change your assumptions? Ultimately, is it important or unimportant? If the issue is important, and implies a change in goal or assumptions, it is logical to change your plan. If not, it is illogical, and knowing your reason will reinforce your determination to stick with your original intentions.
Encountering this at a time when I have been trying to improve my own daily planning has provided both encouragement and food for thought.

On the latter score, while I am not sure scheduling every moment is something I want to do, it is valuable to consider her reasoning for the practice. On the former, I am more confident that taking time to review my goals right after a major interruption I have most mornings is a step in the right direction.

2. At How to Be Profitable and Moral, Jaana Woiceshyn elaborates on why, "Why the government must leave Big Tech alone." After briefly outlining the differences between the coercive power of government and he economic power of large companies, she concludes in part:
[A]s long as the Big Tech firms trade on voluntary basis and don't resort to physical coercion or fraud, their moral right to produce and trade as they see fit must be defended. If we don't like the way with they operate or are worried about their influence, we are free to not buy or use their products and services. We are also free to recognize their faults, such as biased search results, and act accordingly: treat such results with suspicion and do additional research.
Woiceshyn notes the disturbing removal by Amazon of a classic of American literature from its stores. This crucially does not make Gone With the Wind impossible to obtain, as a government ban would. Some of the reasoning behind the current animus against Big Tech over such "censorship" flirts with having government step in to judge the merit of content -- that is, replacing this "censorship" with the real thing.

Thus, in the name of freedom of speech, antitrust is threatening both property rights and freedom of speech.

3. The Texas Institute for Property Rights offers praise to Disneyland president Ken Potrock. A rare bird these days, this is a businessman willing to stand up to abuse of government power, of which California's governor has been guilty ever since the first improper "lockdown" edicts were issued in March. The post quotes Potrock as follows:
We have proven that we can responsibly reopen, with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme park properties around the world. Nevertheless, the State of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities.
I share the dismay about Potrock's being a lonely voice.

In better times, Newsom would have been recalled months ago. Today? Two attempts have failed, but a third is underway. I urge anyone in California to consider supporting this effort.

4. And speaking of better times, the following comes from Jason Crawford's excellent Roots of Progress blog, regarding America's once-healthy respect for growth. Crawford comments on widespread indignation that the 1890 census had not counted at least 75 million:
"Spasms of indignation" because population growth was too low for "the dignity of the republic". Americans were proud of being the fastest-growing country. Today, in contrast, people fear overpopulation, and the general slowing of world population growth is generally considered to be good news.

Something changed in American attitudes in the last 100+ years, not just toward technology or the economy as such, but more fundamentally toward growth itself.
Indeed, and Crawford's work on helping us understand and once again appreciate progress is a step in the right direction.

-- CAV

Is Our Culture Catching Up to Achievement?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Venture capitalist Paul Graham considers the problem of evaluating what he calls early work from multiple angles. This he does with the view of understanding how those most involved in the process of innovation -- the innovator himself, potential collaborators, and potential investors -- can become better at it.

It's a short essay, but one that will require multiple readings: Graham has lots to say, but the thoughtful reader will be almost too full of thought at any given point to be able to grasp everything at once. I need to reread it myself, but I feel safe throwing out a couple of things that jumped out at me.

First, Graham is right to note that the breakneck speed of innovation we're seeing today is a new phenomenon historically -- which implies that our social conventions regarding new ideas are probably lagging behind:

Some early work by the Wright Brothers, who drew ridicule -- and apologies-- in print. (Image by Orville Wright, via Wikipedia, public domain.)
We just don't have enough experience with early versions of ambitious projects to know how to respond to them. We judge them as we would judge more finished work, or less ambitious projects. We don't realize they're a special case.

Or at least, most of us don't. One reason I'm confident we can do better is that it's already starting to happen. There are already a few places that are living in the future in this respect. Silicon Valley is one of them: an unknown person working on a strange-sounding idea won't automatically be dismissed the way they would back home. In Silicon Valley, people have learned how dangerous that is. [bold added]
This is a very interesting observation, and Graham offers his views on how we can better develop our ability to judge early work.

I'm not sure I agree with everything Graham says, but he is, as Alex Epstein has put it in his Human Flourishing Project, a master practitioner-teacher: His opinion has been tested in the real world and is well worth considering.

In fact, the other thing from his essay that jumped out at me, as a creator, is a way to work around prejudice against my own early work:
Another common trick is to start by considering new work to be of a different, less exacting type. To start a painting saying that it's just a sketch, or a new piece of software saying that it's just a quick hack. Then you judge your initial results by a lower standard. Once the project is rolling you can sneakily convert it to something more.

This will be easier if you use a medium that lets you work fast and doesn't require too much commitment up front. It's easier to convince yourself that something is just a sketch when you're drawing in a notebook than when you're carving stone. Plus you get initial results faster. [bold added, notes removed]
This passage has me thinking about my work flow, and whether I am committing to more serious projects -- and then killing them off -- too early. Another benefit that occurs to me is that this can preserve the creative element of play Steven Johnson noted in Wonderland as so big a part of innovation. How can I make it easy to play longer? is the way I am holding this idea in my mind at the moment.

Graham ends on an optimistic note about this part of our culture, which is itself early work:
Curiously enough, the solution to the problem of judging early work too harshly is to realize that our attitudes toward it are themselves early work. Holding everything to the same standard is a crude version 1. We're already evolving better customs, and we can already see signs of how big the payoff will be.
The payoff, like the threads of this short, but excellent essay, spans many different, but synergistic aspects of the human experience including at least culture, psychology, technology, and business. One could write a book on the subject, and I hope Graham does, based on what I have learned already.

-- CAV

The (Not So) Great Barrington Declaration

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

I recently got wind of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a manifesto against coronavirus "lockdowns" drafted by the American Institute for Economic Research and co-signed by a large number of "medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners."

I did not speak for or against it at the time, because I had not read or thought about it, but I did mention a policy document I have read and agree with, "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease: Planning for the Next Pandemic," by the Ayn Rand Institute in June of this year.

I am glad I held my tongue: In my opinion, the Great Barrington Declaration is unclear about the proper role of government regarding communicable disease and -- as an unsurprising result -- it advocates a dubious policy regarding the disease.

Although I have from the start been opposed to rule by edict in general; and to universal, indefinite home imprisonment in particular; I cannot support the GBD.

In his Bloomberg piece criticizing the GBD, Tyler Cowen generally argues that the GBD is wrong to focus on herd immunity. This is on the right track, and I believe it is worthwhile to consider (1) why he says so, and (2) why I think there is an even stronger case -- a pro-liberty case -- to be made against the GBD.

Early in his line of argument, Cowen correctly notes that the stress on herd immunity leaves proponents of the GBD wide open to arguments by those who would force us all to wait for a vaccine:

Image by Andrea Lightfoot, via Unsplash, license.
By the middle of next year, and quite possibly sooner, the world will be in a much better position to combat Covid-19. The arrival of some mix of vaccines and therapeutics will improve the situation, so it makes sense to shift cases and infection risks into the future while being somewhat protective now. To allow large numbers of people today to die of Covid, in wealthy countries, is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I.
And that's not the only problem:
The declaration also sets up a false dichotomy by comparing its policy proposals to lockdowns. The claim is this: "Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health." The health problems are very real, but in most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe.
So far, then, the GBD gives us no compelling reason not to wait for a vaccine to arrive or to question the wisdom of our government's response, even from an economic perspective.

Cowen goes on to note that many people would voluntarily refrain from many prohibited (or once-prohibited) activities, anyway. That fact further shows the focus on herd immunity -- this time indirectly via the economic effects of the "lockdowns" -- is a thin reed on which to build a case for a major policy shift. A reader could understandbly wonder: If we were going to have a recession, anyway, how have lockdowns really mattered?

It is at Cowen's most compelling criticism of the GBD that I come closest to cheering -- and yet find myself wanting to urge him on. Cowen is objecting to the GBD calling for governments to "allow (!) those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection:"
What exactly does the word "allow" mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature's will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: "Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process."
Let's indeed "channel our inner Ayn Rand," but much, much sooner.

First: I am a human being. If my getting sick ultimately spares someone else the same, great. But I'll be damned if I'll trade one politician throwing me out of work for another setting up a national chickenpox party. Beyond protecting me from the objective threat of another's deliberate or negligent actions pertaining to this disease, my health is my business, not the government's.

Herd immunity is a fact the government should account for, but not an excuse for the government to either dictate our lives or sit on its hands.

Second, and as for what the government should be doing: How in hell has it come to it that a libertarian think tank speaks of the government allowing anything? Isn't the whole point of government to protect individual rights, that is, to protect human agency from infringement from others? Such a government by default protects our right to exercise agency so long as it does not violate the rights of others, as spelled out in advance by objective laws.

And what does this mean in the context of the pandemic, a massive outbreak of a communicable disease? "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease" clearly explains in part:
The path that a first-world and free country should take, the truly American path, is for government to test and track the infectious in order to isolate them and quarantine those they might have exposed, and for noninfectious individuals to voluntarily take the actions and countermeasures they judge appropriate for their lives and circumstances.

In other words, a proper government should secure our freedom. This means that it must simultaneously strive to isolate carriers of an infectious disease severe enough to present a threat to the rights of the noninfected and work to preserve the freedom of the noninfected (or those for whom there is no specific evidence that they may be infected) to continue to live their lives. The government of a free society should have been laser focused on isolating the infectious and, insofar as that was impossible, given us the freedom to deal with the risk of the virus as rationally as possible. [first emphasis added; second emphasis in original, but changed to bold]
So, yes, the GBD is wrong to focus on herd immunity and that focus greatly undermines its calls against "lockdowns."

Worse than that, as with so many modern debates involving science and government policy, we end up with camps of unqualified laymen squabbling about science when the real issue goes completely unnoticed: We and our governments have lost sight of what government is for.

Taking government's role as, in part, to protect "public health," we're misusing it to protect ... whom? ... from a disease, rather than individuals from the initiation of force (or the threat thereof) from others. And the debate, instead of starting from Is this what government is really for? ends up being on the wrong question entirely: How can the government best stop the pandemic? Notice that the ARI, which did ask the former question, was able to give a compelling case against lockdowns and a comprehensive alternative applicable to any future disease in June.

(And yes, it would help the pandemic end, by the natural order -- which proper government enables -- of individuals being careful on their own behalf or actively fighting the disease for profit. This is the result, although not the goal, of proper government. And this is the way to "maximize the role of vaccines in the process" of ending the pandemic -- by maximizing freedom.)

By contrast, the GBD, as well-intentioned as it is, can only belatedly offer us the freedom to get sick on behalf of our fellow man as a weak justification for "allowing" the "low-risk" to resume their lives. And who knows what we'll do the next time a pandemic hits?

By implication, the GBD also invites everyone to assume that the question of locking down is just a cost-benefit analysis. I invite the reader to ask: At whose cost, for whose benefit, and calculated by whom?

The saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," is vastly underappreciated: Such a myopic view can lead one to worsen a problem with the very tool that could help solve it. For example: Wolves are coming and your front door is broken. Should you run out and swing the hammer at the wolves while your family hangs back, or should you find a room, where you can swing at the wolves with a hammer while your family hides behind you?

Wrong. You hold the door in place and fasten it with nails until the immediate problem passes. You can lay traps for or hunt the wolves later, or pay someone else to do it.

Our pandemic response has been just as ridiculous a misuse of government as the above would be of a hammer.

One could understandably argue that, against the many public figures arguing for (or enforcing) the more draconian lockdowns, the GBD is better than nothing at all. This is not true: While it is true that the lockdowns have worsened the damage the pandemic would have wrought anyway and debatable that they have helped control the spread of the disease, simply pointing that out is not enough.

Laying out such facts absent an interpretation that includes using government for its proper purpose can (and has) resulted in another bad policy proposal. Worse, it leaves intact the premise that it is okay for a collectivist government to run our lives.

It may be true that a more rational government policy might superficially look like what the GBD proposes, with the pandemic out of control as it is. (To wit: Some argue that Sweden may already have herd immunity, although this never was the goal of Sweden's pro-freedom pandemic strategy.)

There is nothing wrong with pointing out the costs of our government's many blunders, nor with using them to buttress calls for a better policy. But that is completely different from using a cost-benefit argument that ignores individual rights to advocate a policy whose goal is well outside the proper scope of government.

-- CAV

Greatness as Repeatable Goodness

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Don't be fooled by the title -- "How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably." And by that, I don't simply mean that the author, Steph Smith, isn't giving advice on how to achieve greatness effortlessly.

In a nutshell, Smith is advising specialization, and improving processes incrementally over time -- but she has lots more to say than that about the process of becoming great. For example: the journey has emotional lows and highs, stemming both from how our emotions operate and the unsteady nature of progress.

And then there's the small matter of what good even is. How do you know you're picking something you want to think about all the time? How do you know you're not beating your head against the wall one more time instead of making an investment in your processes? Here's what she says about that, reminding me of Barbara Sher's advice to take a bad job (scroll down):

Progress? (Image by Eugene Zhyvchik, via Unsplash, license.)
Before you find the path that you want to double down on, this habit of progression takes the form of iteration. I see many people who are stuck in this stage and feel like they're moving nowhere. Perhaps they go take a degree for a year and find that wasn't right. Maybe they go and work for a company for two more and realize that wasn't right either.

If you're struggling to identify the right path, create more nodes of optimization. For example: if you're making changes every year, you only have maybe 80 in your entire life to make. Instead, try testing things intentionally every month or even every week. Pilot a lot and then double down when you have found your path towards "good".

You may ask, "what makes good, good?". Ask yourself the question: "If I were to continue this every day for the next year, would I be in a better place?" If the answer is yes, you have a path towards "good".
I find the third paragraph thin gruel -- I bet people starting courses think they'll be in a better place ... until they don't. But Smith's larger point of evaluating one's progress more frequently and thoughtfully is valuable and can be expanded upon. Let's say one decides on a path and is dissatisfied: Were there especially good (or bad) points that could help with a course correction? It is valuable to me to see that this kind of approach can be applied more often than once or twice a year, and to things less dramatic than changing jobs.

This piece, although only about 3200 words long, is both instructive and thought-provoking, and it will likely require several readings and some thinking over time to fully benefit from it.

-- CAV

Firewood Is 'Cheaper,' Too

Monday, October 19, 2020

Advocates of unreliable wind and solar energy frequently make the claim that these two energy sources are "cheaper" than fossil fuels -- as if countless individuals with power bills would fail to notice. (They do, but not because they are stupid. Read on.)

A recent such claim popped up on a tech news aggregator I frequent, and drew a pretty decent comment in reply.

The reply is, in part:

Image by Annie Spratt, via Unsplash, license.
These comparisons solely account for the production costs and not for the system costs of solar energy and are therefore completely useless.

Solar panels will always require a backup power plant as the Sun isn't shining 24/7 and storing large amounts of electric energy isn't trivial.

I'm really disappointed that this kind of non-sense gets posted on [Hacker News] over and over again.

I'm from Germany, we have 50% renewables in our electricity mix and our electricity prices are the highest worldwide.

France has 70% nuclear and their consumer electricity prices are half of the German ones.

Additionally, France emits only 50 grams of CO2 per kWh while Germany emits 400 grams on average per kWh. [bold added]
The German electricity customer is getting screwed by all this "cheap" energy and in the name of a goal -- a goal which is being missed and is of debatable merit, anyway.

And while, yes, it is disappointing to see the same misleading claim repeated ad nauseam, such repetition means multiple opportunities to spread the correct word.

Indeed, although our German commenter has done a good job summarizing the situation in Germany, plenty of Americans might justifiably believe such claims when they are made about such prices here.

We're a freer country, they might think. They might even recall that American utilities bid for electricity from different producers, and have doubtless heard how well solar and wind do in these markets -- markets which are very unfree as it turns out.

Fortunately for the truth and its power to avert calamity, energy advocate Alex Epstein recently interviewed electricity consultant Tom Stacy on this very subject. Here, briefly, is what you can expect, from the blog at the Center for Industrial Progress:
Tom has been able to explain better than anyone else how electricity markets are "rigged against reliables," so I brought him on this week's Power Hour to break down the issue.

Bottom line: the value of reliability is not priced into today's electricity "markets" -- and it needs to be. [bold added]
The interview is aptly titled, "Rigged Against Reliables," and is worth a full listening. For anyone interested in more detail, Stacy is the author of a study at the Institute for Energy Research concluding that, "Wind [and] solar [are] up to five times more costly than existing coal and nuclear."

The whole way this comparison is usually put also reminds me that I could go out into the woods near my house and gather pieces of wood for my cooking. That's free, but I don't do this.


For very good reasons: Prices are meaningless outside a context. Here, I can see that the price of my free firewood is based on an incomplete accounting for such things as: (a) the ease of obtaining the propane, natural gas, or electricity, I use, instead; (b) the ease of use of any of these over wood; and (c) the amount of time I would lose at first and any other time I chose to cook with a wood fire. This is exactly what the "solar and wind are cheaper" crowd is asking you to do, only they hope you won't do this homework, or realize that they have skipped it themselves.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 16, 2020

Four Things

Image by The Works Progress Administration, via Wikimedia, public domain.
1. In case you missed it earlier this month, the economist John Cochrane posted about an "artistic representation of government waste" at his blog, The Grumpy Economist.

When first I saw the title, my mind briefly processed it with the low expectations borne of past general disappointment with others: Essentially every time I see or hear that phrase, it is in the context of someone nattering about some relatively minor profligacy occurring within a government program that is itself wasteful or larcenous on a staggering scale.

Not him, too! I thought. Stop by his post for both a better angle of the statue at right and for his apt comments on something an agency that shouldn't even exist accidentally got right.

2. Everyone knows that my native state of Mississippi was the birthplace of the blues and I have passed along word here of the unexpected culinary delights to be found (still, I hope) in its rural Delta region.

But did you know that Kermit the Frog was created in Mississippi? Atlanta Magazine fills out a list of must-sees with the story:
Jim Henson Museum

This tiny museum on the banks of Deer Creek, the birthplace of Kermit the Frog, celebrates the life and work of Leland's favorite son, Jim Henson. Opened in 1991 on the heels of Henson's death, the museum tells the story of Kermit's origins: The beloved frog was fashioned in 1955 from a coat once worn by Henson's mother and a halved ping-pong ball. It also recounts how Henson created a population of the beloved puppets for the 1969 Children's Television Network production, Sesame Street. Displays showcase a wealth of plush toys, figurines, Pez dispensers, lunch boxes, and other items featuring the likes of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and their Muppet friends. [minor format edits]
In addition to the above, the interesting piece goes on to recommend some other establishments, several -- but by no means all -- pertaining to the blues.

3. I'm always on the lookout for clever hacks; here are ... two and a half.
  • A teacher has come up with a low-tech hack for allowing one to display hand-written notes as slides over Zoom. I haven't tried this myself, but I believe Zoom has a way to mirror displayed video, in case that turns out to be a problem. Score: 1 -- Probably useful in a pinch.
  • If your computer has a good web browser, it is possible to implement a toy office suite via a few small bookmarklets. (The most "bloated" of these is the 800 byte spreadsheet.) Score: 1 -- Very clever, and I've even used the "word processor" a few times.
  • In Unix-like systems, you can use the file utility to get an educated guess as to what a mystery file is. This is just one of several similar tips, not confined to Linux. Score: ½ -- useful, but not really a hack.
4. We'll ... end ... on a somewhat macabre note in an early nod to Halloween by considering a Newsweek article about a job you probably haven't heard of: the coffin confessor. These folks get paid to go to funerals and deliver messages from beyond the grave.

Leave it to capitalism to deliver what millennia of mysticism have failed to do: actual messages from beyond the grave.

And yes -- to bring an old joke back from the dead -- there's an app for that, too.

-- CAV

A Cheap Lesson Contra "Burn It to the Ground"

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Business writer Alison Green writes in Slate that "Working From Home Is Making a Lot of People Miserable." It is interesting to consider all of the good things about having to go to an office that so many people have learned on their own hides because governments forced them to try to work from home wholesale. (This in no way excuses such tyrannical behavior.)

Here's just one of seven things the Ask a Manager columnist gleaned from readers -- and it's from someone who was working from home before the "lockdowns":

Image by Tito Texidor III, via Unsplash, license.
It was great when I was working from home and my kids were in day care/camp. Now I have a kindergartner and a second grader who are 100% online and it's no fun. For anyone involved. They don't understand "important" and will pester me while on the phone. Meltdowns, loud noises, all normal kid stuff but it makes it really hard for me to work. I'm tech support and tutor, while managing a small remote team and responding to clients. I'm working odd hours to catch up, taking calls and meetings through Teams on my phone. I'm frustrated and short with my kids. I feel like I don't get a break. I'm "on" from the moment the kids wake up until they go to bed, then I have to play catch up.

Basically, it feels like I'm failing everyone. I'm dropping balls at work and I'm not the patient, helpful mom I want to be. When all this is over, I will need a serious vacation to decompress.
My kids are back in school, but this sounds very familiar, including the part about needing a vacation. Which sucks, because I would bet lots of people will have lost all kinds of momentum or will have lots of catching up to do. I have and I do.

If there is a positive learning to be gleaned from the lockdowns -- besides the value of rule of law -- it might be that idle fantasy can be a dangerous thing. There is a saying to the effect of, "Watch out: You may get what you wish for."

This has just happened to millions of office workers and during a time of great discontent -- a time when such ideas as defunding the police get actual traction, rather than the ridicule they deserve. (What about this crazy idea: Police that don't abuse their power...)

Burning down all our offices, we now know -- without actually having done so -- wouldn't be a bright idea.

Perhaps we should think twice before we burn anything else down.

-- CAV

Etiquette and Purpose

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

In a recent column, Miss Manners does a pretty good job of correcting the common misconception of etiquette as a confusing mess of arbitrary rules that have little to do with daily life. At one point in a reply to a question, she almost explicitly lays out the purpose of etiquette as a means of managing conflict -- be it by preventing it from unnecessarily escalating or by avoiding it altogether when it is unnecessary.

What I liked best about her particular response, though, was her explicitness in tying one's purpose to one's response to rudeness.

After first asking, "Does the form of confrontation serve the purpose? Will it change bad behavior?" she later elaborates:

The way non-rational animals interact is, frankly, for the birds. (Image by Chris Sabor, via Unsplash, license.)
In some cases -- as, for example, when citizens strive for a systemic change -- it takes perseverance and fortitude. In others -- such as dealing with one's bigoted old uncle -- the wiser course may be to refrain from prodding him by keeping off the offensive subjects. And scolding strangers in the street just makes them act worse.

In none of these situations does rudeness lead to success. That is why official arenas handling conflict -- courts, legislatures, sports -- have strict etiquette rules so that both sides are supposed to restrain from unproductive antagonisms.

Protesters win adherents by cultivating empathy, not by attacking potential supporters. Individuals are not open to instruction from people who do not show them some basic respect.

Typically, when Miss Manners advises avoiding confrontation, it is in situations where there is nothing to be gained -- and possibly much to lose... [bold added]
She doesn't take the last step of stating that manners are a matter of rational self-interest, but she comes very close.

But it is clear that etiquette, far from a set of rules meant to please others, is a practical value for living a good life.

-- CAV

(Already) Worse Than the 'Great Recession'

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Issues and Insights calls for an immediate end to the unscientific and economically devastating "lockdowns" first initiated in the name of fighting the pandemic.

At one point, the piece notes that the economic costs in the United States have been "catastrophic" and "worse than the 2007-2008 Great Recession." This is true, but one of the chief virtues of the piece is its mention of some of the other many costs of the tyrannical policy of indefinite mass home detention, first packaged as "two weeks to flatten the curve:"

Image by Nik Shuliahin, via Unsplash, license.
"The lockdowns led to wide unemployment and economic recession, resulting in increased drug and alcohol abuse and increases in domestic abuse and suicides," wrote Joel Zinsberg, a medical doctor and lawyer and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"Most studies in a systematic literature review found a positive association between economic recession and increased suicides," Zinsberg wrote in City Journal. "Data from the 2008 Great Recession showed a strong positive correlation between increasing unemployment and increasing suicide in middle aged (45 -- 64) people. Ten times as many people texted a federal government disaster mental-distress hotline in April 2020 as in April 2019."

Moreover, many with serious conditions have been avoiding treatment, as they were told to do by those in charge of lockdowns early on in the pandemic. Many of those who have died did so without any COVID-19 infection at all. [links in original]
The piece cites evidence that, for all this, the "lockdowns" were not even a successful strategy for fighting the pandemic.

Although I cannot speak for or against the Great Barrington Declaration the piece points to, I can and will recommend the excellent white paper, "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease," which not only offers an argument against such policies, but offers a well-considered, viable alternative.

-- CAV

Great News at Disney World

Monday, October 12, 2020

National Review Online passes along the following impressive news regarding Disney World's employees three months after the theme park reopened its doors in Florida:

Image by Greg Cohen, via Unsplash, license.
"'We've had very few, and none, as far as we can tell, have been from work-related exposure,' said Eric Clinton, president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents roughly 8,000 attraction workers and custodians."

None? As in nobody among 8,000 union workers at Disney World has been infected by coronavirus on the job? This is fantastic news. Other unions, according to the Times, tell a similar story. And workers presumably are at far greater risk than visitors, since workers are there every day. And this is three months after the park reopened. I don't know what the takeaway is here, but Disney World is mainly an outdoor activity. Recall that there was no outbreak associated with Disney World back in the spring either; the park was open until March 15, and thousands of workers and visitors streamed through the park even as the New York Times, among others, sounded the warning bell. [bold added, italics in original]
I am not that surprised at the first bit of news: The parks are doubtless taking precautions against the virus now. The fact that nothing happened in March I'd attribute to a lower overall prevalence of the virus then, as well as the generally fleeting contact most visitors have with park employees most of the time.

As for what this means for visitors, I am in slight disagreement with the folks at NRO: I think the risks are different for workers and visitors overall. Visitors, I would imagine, have a higher chance of finding themselves in crowds for prolonged periods of time, such as when rushing for cover when Florida's customary afternoon showers hit.

But still, this is a welcome indication that another normal activity is feasible during the pandemic.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 09, 2020

Four Things

Image by Curtis MacNewton, via Unsplash, license.
Thoughts about recent improvements to and experiments regarding my routine.

1. It's hard to believe it, but between holiday obligations, the pandemic, and a change in my routine that shortened morning alone time, my very productive wee hours routine of organizing the garage abruptly ended, unfinished, nearly a year ago.

Only a couple of weeks ago did I find a good time to start doing this again: right after dropping the kids off to school, while it's still cool, and before I start the day's work.

Things only got more crowded and disorganized in there during the "lockdown," so finding a way to do this painlessly again has been a big relief.

2. I love beer, but found myself in the odd position one evening early last month of realizing that I was not really enjoying my evening quaff. So I decided to borrow a page from the Brits and abstain from alcohol for a month.

I have nothing spectacular to report: this wasn't particularly difficult to do and I felt neither noticeably better (nor worse!) during the time.

Happily, but unlike after other, shorter breaks of a week I have taken in the past, the biggest thing I can report is my mild surprise at noticing that I didn't enjoy yesterday's first beer dramatically more than usual.

My tentative conclusion is that I had fallen into a rut, and that it must be time to find a new "go-to" beer for the evening. My tastes have changed before...

3. In tweaking my "space planner," I decided to find a "quote of the day" related to the day's goals or something I learned from the previous day. My Twitter followers seem to have enjoyed quite a few of these, too.

4. Podcasts aren't just for commutes.

My usual time for listening to podcasts is when I am driving somewhere alone, but fellow parents may also find them useful at another kind of time during the pandemic.

If you have to schlep your kids to some indoor activity -- Mine take an art class for an hour every Tuesday. -- you may find either that the waiting room is closed or that you're not comfortable sitting in one. An hour is too short for most errands, but long enough to accomplish something, if you have a book or small electronics handy. (I used to write (or get started on) the next day's blog post on a small laptop, but that's hard to do in a car.)

Reading is an obvious option, and one of the things I do now, but I often find that I am not in the mood for that at that time of the day. Podcasts have been a great alternative.

-- CAV

Improving How One Learns From Others

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Image by Rita Morais, via Unsplash, license.
A recent installment of Alex Epstein's Human Flourishing Project advises listeners to learn from master practitioner-teachers: that is, from people who have achieved success in their domain and are actively interested in passing along their knowledge. Epstein gives a couple of specific examples, Creativity, Inc., by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and Amy Hastings; and the new best-seller, No Rules Rules, by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer.

This is outstanding advice and helps me further, through its name, to essentialize something I was already doing -- although implicitly and not always as well as I might, going forward. (If this sounds familiar, it's because I recently saw Jason Crawford make a similar type of identification regarding a common problem that directly impacts cultural activism.)

The rest here is me thinking out loud, for as long as I had time this morning...

One of my better examples of doing this has been to follow Alison Green's excellent Ask a Manager blog and use it as a resource when I have questions on such matters as workplace-type interactions, norms of professional behavior, or how certain things usually get done in business settings. (I once aced an interview for a longshot, but interesting position, thanks to her advice. I got the interview in the first place due to a clerical error on their part. But they called me later for a related position thanks to the first interview.)

Another time, I found a blog by a respected attorney in a niche field when considering an idea I had for a small business. His explanations were very clear, made sense, and helped me build my knowledge about his subject matter. When a past Client From Hell caused me legal problems in that very area, I was already very confident he could help me, and hired him. Legal problem solved.

On a lesser level, I frequently take advantage of online forums like Stack Overflow to solve problems with the mostly open-source software that I use. Since other practitioners are critiquing (and testing!) the advice, I have been able to rapidly solve problems that would cause most users at my level to throw up their hands and say That's above my pay grade. (I am not speaking of learning deeply from a master teacher-practitioner here, but bring this up as an example of the broader applicability of the approach of gaining confidence in advice from the track record of the person offering it.)

In addition to Epstein identifying a way to improve one's ability to gain knowledge, he caused me to ask myself why it is that I choose certain people or sources for knowledge or advice. In my words, Epstein's big-picture advice is: Find a reality-tested expert who can communicate clearly. Most of us can tell when someone is communicating clearly or not: It's determining whether someone is an expert that can be difficult.

Interestingly, although expertise doesn't always translate into clear communication, clear communication is often one of my screens for whether someone is an expert. This is because having clarity is a prerequisite for clear communication. You may sometimes need to consult an expert whose communication is as clear as mud, but, if you are an active thinker, clarity can be a useful initial screen for expertise.

The last sentence ties in directly with something I always do when attempting to judge expertise: I find something the person addresses that I know enough about to be able to see whether (and how and why) something this person says fits in (or not) with what I already know; or I run something that person has to say by other(s) with more knowledge, and whose opinion I respect. (This never stops: One should also develop a habit of being aware of a need to consider what other experts think: Experts can and often do disagree with one another.)

Epstein's examples come from business, which is a two-edged sword. The good: Since commercial success in unregulated parts of the economy is generally a good indicator of whether a businessman generally knows what he's doing ... (1) this is a field where it can be relatively easy to judge practical success; thus (2) the clean example makes it easy to conceptualize master practitioner. The bad, so to speak: One has to have a clear, objective idea of what constitutes mastery in most other fields. For example, the notorious quack, Dr. Oz, is a wild success by some measures, but it will be a cold day in Hell before I consider any of his medical advice. (I am not familiar enough with him to know if I would regard him as a clear communicator, but that is only an initial and provisional screen for expertise, anyway.)

Fortunately, there are other ways of measuring practical success. Here are some examples: (1) In addition to having had a managerial career, Alison Green regularly posts updates from readers who have tried her advice, often with enough detail to judge why it did or did not work. (2) Computer forums, product reviews, and the like often offer overall ratings and multiple perspectives in addition to there often being opportunities to trial the advice. (3) One can always seek out experts one is already familiar with or learn about some from intelligent, active-minded friends.

And that's it for now on this very interesting and important, but complicated subject...

-- CAV

The Other, Other 'Long Covid'

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Almost anyone who has been paying much attention to the pandemic will have heard by now of "Long Covid:" There are reports of sufferers from Covid enduring long or incomplete recoveries, or being left with other lingering problems. These problems are not well understood and may not (all?) be uniquely related to this virus in particular. But I am not a physician, and that is not the topic of this post, anyway.

Nor are the economic effects of the pandemic and our governments' panicked and tyrannical response, although they are horrendous.

The other, other "Long Covid" is the one only a few -- such as security guru Bruce Schneier -- are beginning to begin to talk about. And that is surely at least in part because that topic -- from psychology (an infant science) -- is at least as complicated as is physical "Long Covid" -- from the more mature, but very complex sciences of medicine and biology.

But there is no denying that this long, traumatic event has had profound psychological effects on many, and Schneier thoughtfully grapples with the problem, which reminds him of acedia, a depression-like syndrome reportedly seen among early and medieval monks:

Image by Hieronymus Wierix, via Wikimedia, public domain.
What we are confronting is something many writers in the pandemic have approached from varying angles: a restless distraction that stems not just from not knowing when it will all end, but also from not knowing what that end will look like. Perhaps the sharpest insight into this feeling has come from Jonathan Zecher, a historian of religion, who linked it to the forgotten Christian term: acedia.

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval Christian monks. It's a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

What could this particular form of melancholy mean in an urgent global crisis? On the face of it, all of us care very much about the health risks to those we know and don't know. Yet lurking alongside such immediate cares is a sense of dislocation that somehow interferes with how we care. [bold added and link omitted]
As I noted (again) yesterday, the government has made this pandemic much worse than it ever had to be, through lack of forethought, evasion, and sometimes even overmuch gusto regarding its reckless abuse of power.

Ours has become -- or been abruptly revealed as -- a country of men, not law. Or at least it's much farther along that path than many of us believed. And a huge consequence of the current degree of lawlessness has been our inability to plan ahead. (This is either because our plans have actually been disrupted, or because we face the prospect of the same. See also: learned helplessness.)

We have, for example, been conscripted into the educational and child care industries, deprived of our livelihoods, and drawn out slowly on the Rack of Moving Goalposts regarding when we would again be "allowed" to perform as autonomous adults. In America. In a country founded on the opposite idea: That we own our own lives and are responsible for living them without harming others. Part of the shock comes from the fact that we, the once-fortunate, could not even conceive of having to try to live otherwise.

I don't agree with everything Schneier says, but he and coauthor Nick Couldry are on to something. Many people know on a gut level that something is seriously wrong, and I think that many people are handicapped by the fact that they are unclear on some level about what's wrong or what to do about it.

I will credit myself with understanding much of this better than many. Yet, although I wouldn't go so far as to say I suffer from the malaise Schneier describes, I will admit that I found these events -- particularly during the spring -- shocking and disorienting. That said, the constellation of symptoms he describes is a predictable outcome of this evil experiment in mass infantilization.

In fact, were I to rate how the government's response to this pandemic has felt to me, it would be one of the top three bad events in my life that wasn't the death of a loved one. To take one of these: Even with our government's bumbling response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, the government did not cause it to become impossible for so many people to at least begin to cope or move on.

It is one thing to know that our life-giving liberty is in grave peril, but it can still be quite another to see it what that can mean on a day-to-day basis, in excruciating detail. This is the difference between knowing that a loved one is terminally ill, and seeing him on his death-bed, as I know from seeing my father alive for the last time, twenty years ago.

This is horrible beyond words.

But those of us who know the stakes -- and are neither denying that there's an epidemic nor cheering on the "lockdowns" -- are the lucky ones. We may well be the first to reorient ourselves and to become able to act appropriately and to the best of our ability.

That doesn't mean it will be easy.

-- CAV

Use Staircase Wit in Editing

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

On my to-do list was to go through a New York Times article on "How to Edit Your Own Writing." My notation? How many things like this might I have, want to review, and consider adding to my reference list?" Was I impressed with the links to the resources sprinkled throughout? The steps? A bit of both? I'm not sure. Perhaps I was just a little too busy to evaluate it all at the time: It's worth reading, but I seem to have most of these things covered.

That said, I ended up being most impressed by something from near the beginning, which strikes me a great way to remind oneself of one's underlying purpose in writing:

Image by Louise Eckerström, via Unsplash, license.
My former writing teacher, the essayist and cartoonist Timothy Kreider, explained revision to me: "One of my favorite phrases is l'esprit d'escalier, 'the spirit of the staircase' -- meaning that experience of realizing, too late, what the perfect thing to have said at the party, in a conversation or argument or flirtation would have been. Writing offers us one of the rare chances in life at a do-over: to get it right and say what we meant this time. To the extent writers are able to appear any smarter or wittier than readers, it's only because they've cheated by taking so much time to think up what they meant to say and refining it over days or weeks or, yes, even years, until they've said it as clearly and elegantly as they can." [bold added]
We have all had this kind of experience, and we would all like to avoid having it again. Asking What will I wish I said after this comes out?, perhaps while imagining a walk down some stairs or, better yet, time spent awake with the "should've saids" might make the need for purposefulness in one's writing more emotionally immediate if one is not quite in the mood.

-- CAV

P.S. Now that I think of it, this reminds me a little of how Don Watkins, I believe it was, explained how he chooses book topics: By thinking about which book he wishes had been written about a topic.

P.P.S. A very interesting resource I ran into recently, thanks to Jon Snader, is the online version of Webster's 1913 dictionary. One writer indirectly linked recommends it because "modern dictionaries have lazy definitions that focus too much on simplicity at the cost of precision" and because it has a very simple interface.

-- CAV

Lockdowns Are Blinding Everyone

Monday, October 05, 2020

There is no denying that seven months of "two weeks to flatten the curve" has had a negative effect on business. Conservatives say this outright when making a case for ending house arrest in one jurisdiction or another. Leftists implicitly do so when they call for passing out more loot even as they apparently want this to continue ... I don't know -- permanently? ... despite ample evidence that other nations have successfully fought the epidemic without doing so.

At the same time, it is also clear that certain kinds of business were always going to suffer to some extent until and unless (1) the pandemic ended, or (2) enough people became confident enough in their ability to live with or work around it. A Vox piece puts this into stark relief, although its title, "The False Hope of Reopening Is Killing Small Businesses," sounds like an attempt to blame the right for this problem.

Before we continue, let's be clear: The lockdowns were immoral and were an improper exercise of government power. They violated individual rights on a scale unprecedented in the United States, and were a far cry from what a proper response to the pandemic would have looked like. That is the reason they should never have been instituted in the first place, and why they should be ended now. Trying to sell "reopenings" as an economic panacea (1) does not claim the moral high ground, (2) is unrealistic given changes in demand coupled with extra depression on activity due to lockdowns, and (3) will be easy for the left to spin when the recovery proves anemic or nonexistent.

Vox describes several businesses that struggled or died after government officials permitted them to "reopen," and reports the fact -- which might surprise many on the left -- that autonomous adult individuals take actions without being issued orders (!) to avoid becoming sick:

Image by Kirill Balobanov, via Unsplash, license.
According to data from OpenTable, which tracks restaurant reservations and traffic, seated dining in the US is still down more than 50 percent year-over-year. A survey the company did of in the US and Canada found a quarter of respondents say they dine out once a week, but it's still not "anywhere near as often as they did before -- and it's going to be a long time before they do," said OpenTable CEO Debby Soo in an email. She also warned that things are about to get worse, not better: "The colder months will present new challenges for restaurants, especially considering the majority of diners view outdoor dining as safer." [link omitted]
It is worth noting that cell phone data indicated people traveled less before lockdowns were ordered in the first place.

So many businesses surely would have been hurt even without lockdowns -- but not practically all of them.

What this means is that, by failing to ramp up testing, contact tracing, and (actual) quarantines early, our government allowed the epidemic to get out of control enough that business was going to suffer unevenly. The lockdowns worsened this (but did not cause all of this). So, while it is easy to point to the lockdowns as the time business went south, that explanation doesn't cover everything: Running with it is risky at best. The left is grossly indifferent to or incompetent regarding economics, but can, with a low cunning, sniff out an opportunity to spin a narrative to electoral advantage

In addition to being unjust to the extreme, the lockdowns put many people into a waiting mode when they could have been learning how to adjust to life with this disease in it. Many people could have learned much sooner and much more cheaply anything from my life will be pretty close to normal all the way to I have to find another way to earn a living. Instead, millions have done nothing but draw down on savings -- their own or whatever the government confiscates from others -- while given the false hope that government running everything is the solution to all our problems.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 02, 2020

Blog Roundup

1. With threats to industry rising from every direction like the heads of a hydra these days, I am grateful to Jason Crawford for coming up with a memorable name for a key, universally applicable weapon we will need to fight back, industrial literacy:

I've said before that understanding where our modern standard of living comes from, at a basic level, is a responsibility of every citizen in an industrial civilization. Let's call it "industrial literacy." [bold added]
Crawford gives a few examples of what this would mean, and concludes in part:
"Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent 'Thank you' to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find." -- Ayn Rand (Image by Victor Garcia, via Unsplash, license.)
With industrial literacy, you can see the economy as a set of solutions to problems. Then, and only then, are you informed enough to have an opinion on how those solutions might be improved.

A lack of industrial literacy (among other factors) is turning what ought to be economic discussions about how best to improve human health and prosperity into political debates fueled by misinformation and scare tactics. We see this on climate change, plastic recycling, automation and job loss, even vaccines. Without knowing the basics, industrial civilization is one big Chesterton's Fence to some people: they propose tearing it down, because they don't see the use of it. [emphasis and link in original
Overcoming this problem handicaps every advocate of industrial civilization at the moment, because anything, from a defense of plastic bags to fossil fuels almost always has to include some kind of introduction, refresher, or corrective to alarmingly common misconceptions.

2. With California Governor Gavin Newsom having just commissioned a study on reparations, the first thing any such panel should do is read Harry Binswanger's blog post titled "Slavery Did Not Benefit 'Whites'":
You don't need Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy to know that crimes are not racially shared, that there is no collective guilt. The fact that a group of people with white skin enslaved a group of people with dark skin does not mean that everyone with a white skin bears guilt for the crime. The same applies to the "Jim Crow" laws that used to exist in the Southern states: guilt for this rights violation does not attach to skin color.

But it seems that you do need Rand's Objectivism, or at least quite an advanced understanding of capitalism, to realize the error and the insult to blacks in the idea that whites gained financially from slavery, as the term "white privilege" implies.
It was wrong for plantation owners -- white or black, by the way -- to deprive other human beings of their freedom and the fruits of their labors; and it would be wrong to do the same to people alive today.

To do so based on this contemplated modern equivalent of the doctrine of original sin would be particularly unjust.

3. Ben Bayer of the Ayn Rand Institute takes a look at a very common and counterproductive tactic many people use today to avoid examining or discussing ideas, unserious charges of hypocrisy:
Many of today's unserious charges of hypocrisy aren't merely sloppy. Too often they are a ruse to distract everyone from discussing substantive questions, a tactic to skirt around issues that the accusers don't want to touch.

For instance, branding Greta Thunberg a hypocrite allows some of her accusers to skirt the moral question of whether they should revere her environmentalist ideal. It allows them to evade their sense of guilt about not practicing it, by claiming that it's just impossible to practice. (Similar considerations apply to charging socialists with hypocrisy.) Wouldn't it be more honest to face head-on the question of whether these ideals are actually rational?
As Bayer indicates at least thrice, it is very easy for others to see through such charges -- especially when they are based on actions that could reasonably and properly be motivated by those very ideas. But the real damage comes to the one leveling the charges, both in terms of not understanding an issue and harming a cause he supposedly cares about.

4. Almost everyone has experienced resistance to taking easy steps that could help oneself, according to Jean Moroney of Thinking Directions. After offering three possible sources for such conflicts, Moroney notes:
I hesitate to say that you can always find the proximate cause for why you can't do something you think you should do that is doable. But I will say that it is never appropriate to blame it on your character or personality. Even if there are some bad habits mixed in with the problem, the only way you can change those habits is by analyzing concrete situations and finding a way forward that is compatible with the psychology you have now. You always have choices at the moment; they just aren't always the choices you wish they were!
Perhaps we all need reminding, from time to time, that we have to fight our battles as the soldiers we are, and that that's okay.

-- CAV


: Added link to post on industrial literacy.