Monday, May 31, 2010
I have missed posting for several days due to a visit from my daughter and grandson. As always on Memorial Day, I have taken a long moment to remember and salute those who sacrificed themselves for our benefit. I do not intend to speak on the subject for there is nothing I can say that is worthy of the honor they have earned.
Meanwhile I thought to do something different, so this is a book review. Actually it does not have all the detail of a formal review, but rather a report of the impression the book made on me. The book is by Roger Penrose and is titled “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe”.
In one sense, this review feels like cheating since I haven’t finished reading the book. In another sense, it is time to speak out since I think I have gotten the feel of it. Penrose has completed his tour de force, and it may be the best of its kind, once we agree on what its kind is. He covers the history, mathematics, and philosophy of physics; and does so brilliantly with sharp comments and outstanding graphics.
My reason for speaking now is that it may take several passes to finish, and parts I will never understand. Most of the negatives given for the book are for the failure to meet expectations. It is not popular science since it contains too much mathematics and detail. It is not the mathematics of physics, for even with the mathematics it doesn’t contain enough proofs. It is not a physics textbook for there is way too much material for any one course (or even a degree).
What it is though; is a powerful view into the universe of physics and mathematics for an intelligent and patient visitor. While I don’t expect in my lifetime to have the time to understand it all, Penrose once again causes me to expand my horizon, grasp some things that were beyond me before, and improve my enjoyment of that universe. For a similarly inclined reader, I cannot recommend it too highly.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
This seems to be a case of wishful thinking. The wish is, if I just order these manufacturers to be inventive, they can solve it. If any inventor now knew how to double gas mileage and keep current performance standards, the manufacturers would be lined up at his door. There is a way to do it, but it invokes the law of unintended consequences. The regulations won't include the part about current performance standards. so one way to meet the standards is with smaller and slower trucks. This can only work with more trucks and slower delivery. So the cost to society is raised for lots of items. Can't we ever get the politicians and regulators to think of the overall impact of their decisions?
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
I need to warn you that a this blog entry is partially a rant, but I feel qualified to do this since for a large part of my career I was an expert. Staying at the top of my game as a mainframe computer expert (Consultant Systems Engineer) took a good bit of study in the field. Besides my direct work, for many years I read a technical work and 8 or so magazines each week. Then I’d read technical manuals, proposals, project definitions, etc. I would constantly learn new computers, languages, software, and data-base methods. This is what leads to the ignorance for subjects of one's immediate area. After doing this 6 days a week, I was exhausted. In my newspaper I’d go the comics and sports page first; maybe to skip the others. What little spare time was available would go to my house and kids, then a James Bond novel or to Archie Bunker on television.
This same rut and the 70 hour work-weeks apply to most ‘Experts’. What this means is that they can’t keep up on current events or politics. Then we add to the mix those experts who are also classed as ‘Intellectuals’. Most of this idea comes from Thomas Sowell’s excellent thought in his book “Intellectuals and Society”. He defines an intellectual as someone who works with an idea or opinion as his final product. University professors, critics, and expert consultants never need produce anything but the idea; and having produced it they move on never waiting to see an outcome. It may take as much intellect, study, and practice to be a neurosurgeon, but he is not an intellectual and typically lacks the time to present ideas.
Eric Hoffer’s Opinion
Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman and philosopher. His books were insightful and remain in print. During the height of his popularity (the 60s and 70s) he was interviewed in several hour long TV shows, twice by Eric Sevareid and twice by Bill Moyers. I can’t find current details on these shows, and don’t even remember which of these shows it was; but his response on this subject made such a strong impression on me that I can still paraphrase his comments after 40 years.
The interviewer commented on Hoffer’s ‘seeming dislike’ of intellectuals. Hoffer first paused to clarify the current use of the term in government and academia. He defined that ‘Intellectual’ as someone who by virtue of his background (education, college, etc.), ancestry (parents or teachers), or position (expert or bureaucrat) feels he is more qualified to run my life than I am. Then Hoffer exploded: I don’t DISLIKE them; dislike does not begin to describe my feeling. I HATE THEM, I LOATH THEM, I DESPISE THEM.
Role of Experts
I don’t hold ENTIRELY with Hoffer’s attitude. I don’t mind that they think they could run my life better than I. I am slightly irritated when people like a boss’s wife take that position. I am inconvenienced when a someone like an administrative assistant at a church takes that position.
But major problems begin when that expert writes government laws or regulations… now it becomes "do it their way of face fines or jail". There are more problems with regulations, but those are subjects for another blog.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Is There Any Such Thing?
Many times a book or a series of blog entries ends with a ‘Conclusion’ – and that is considered god form to retain the reader’s interest. But this blog isn’t intended to deceive or coax anyone into agreement, only to arrive at a common sense understanding of the questions involved. This isn’t a mystery novel, so to let you know where I am going this preview should be clear and not a mystery. My conclusion is that exceptionalism exists; that America and AMERICANS have been, and to a certain extent still ARE UNIQUE AMONG THE PEOPLES, SOCIETIES AND GOVERNMENTS ON EARTH. The phrase “American Exceptionalism” itself seems to date from the 1830s when the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville reported on his visit to America.
De Tocqueville found, more than anything else, that it was the attitudes of the Americans that were exceptional. Before we delve into these attitudes in later entries, you should be aware that their very existence is challenged by many, even though these challengers disagree about the content or nature of the exceptionalism they challenge. Let’s take a brief look at a couple of the recent challenges and at a few besides Tocqueville who support the idea. On both sides, I'm only presenting two or three of many available sources.
Many scholarly books and papers have addressed the subject, and denied its existence. Just as an example, in 2002 and American-Israeli professor named Arnon Gutfield published his views on the subject. Gutfield was raised in the west and studied at the University of Montana and at UCLA, but since the 1970’s he has been professor of American History at the University of Tel Aviv. His book was “American Exceptionalism: The Effects of Plenty on the American Experience”; (There is a short book review at on Library Things website). He concluded that there may have been such an attitude, but no substantial difference, and that the exception was caused by the tremendous resources available. Even if exceptionalism existed, it disappeared with the frontier in the early twentieth century. This type of study is very much pitched to academics, and many such studies have been published as History, Sociology, or Politics.
In 2005 an American academic named Howard Zinn pushed that same message. He gave a talk at MIT that also decried “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, and basically said that it didn’t exist except as an error in the minds of people. The talk was given on March 14, 2005 as a part of a presentation and discussion sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. It can be seen online at this link.
Last year my attention was grabbed and memory refreshed; when President Obama told a press conference that he believed in American Exceptionalism. Unfortunately his answer equated it with British and Greek exceptionalism, and effectively meant that while he could take pride in his country, he didn’t really mean that there are any superior or unique American values. The press conference held in Europe at NATO on April 4, 2009; and was broadcast on MSNBC, Fox, C-Span, and others. The specific question was asked by reporter Ed Luce of London’s Financial Times.
The Other Side of the Question
One recent and eloquent proponent of the existence of unique values has been radio and TV host Denis Prager. He takes all U.S. coins as a source for his summary of values, and extracts from them three fundamental values: “In God We Trust”, “E Pluribus Unum”, and “Liberty”. Prager’s brief statement is available as the first entry in ‘The Prager University’. I strongly recommend all his comments in the University, which can be seen on Youtube.
The political discussion and view of exceptionalism of course goes back many years. This preview uses only two examples from those views to demonstrate. The first was Rose Wilder Lane (of the “Little House on the Prairie” family) who raised herself by the bootstraps from a Marxist to a sort of Libertarian. She did quite a bit of thinking outside the box, and published her thoughts in 1943 as “The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority”. (The John Day Company published the 1943 book, but reprints are available today in paperback.) Though Lane was a widely popular author, this book was largely ignored since it was about history and political science and she had no academic credentials. Although Jay Nock had praised her work, historians panned it and pointed out some minor errors in the history that it contained. She herself was so disappointed in this result that she refused to reprint it, but she did give another writer permission to use it.
Wilder’s intellectual heir and my second example (that other writer) was a Detroit businessman named Henry Grady Weaver, a business executive after he rose from the ranks at General Motors. ‘Buck’ Weaver took her book as a primary source for his 1947 book “The Mainspring of Human Progress and How Not to Prevent It”. (The 1947 book has been reprinted by the Foundation for Economic Education.) Weaver tightened and somewhat reworded Lane’s work, then added his own views. He attributes a great deal of the invention and progress in transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and commerce to the free individuals and free markets in America.
In Weaver’s view of things, we can judge whether exceptionalism exists by its results. America's inventors and developers are not smarter, luckier, or better educated than those in the rest of the world, but in the course of a century and a half they gave us mass production, the broad use of petro-chemicals, electric and nuclear power, telegraph, telephones, radios and televisions, photographs and movies, airplanes, modern pharmaceuticals, etc., etc. We have had no famine in that time. The 140 years of the progress of America came after more than 5,000 (or 50,000) years of little or very slow progress, therefore something must be unique. One way to describe the uniqueness is “American Exceptionalism”.
So exceptionalism does exist, but what is it? That is for future blog entries…
Monday, May 17, 2010
Another concern occurs when we use terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, particularly in a political context. The concern is that so many related concepts and ideas are lumped in with the idea that a short definition is not actually clear. A frequent notion when complicated or involved agreements are needed is to use an attorney. But I’ve rejected that idea ever since seeing Bill Clinton twist on “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”; a master performance by a trained lawyer.
Since these blogs are about agreement and ideas, we’ve got to be clear on terms. I do not ask that everyone agree with these definitions (although it sure would be nice), but do ask that you consider them, and remember that they apply across these blogs.
Lincoln once remarked that “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” In the 145 years since then, we haven’t got one yet. But since this purports to be a collection of my thoughts about liberty, I decided early on that I needed a clear idea of what liberty was. I always try to keep the following definition in mind:
Liberty is a condition enjoyed by the members of a society in whichHaving evolved and struggled with that definition, I was very pleased when late in my work I found support from Jefferson:
every person has the absolute right to think, speak, and act with no limits other than those needed to secure the same right to every other
“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent,Liberal and Conservative, Left and Right
it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is
unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
If at all possible I intend to avoid using these terms. Generally in politics and other fields a ‘Conservative’ is someone who supports the status-quo or a return to the recent past, while a ‘Liberal’ is one who wants to change things to match some vision they believe is better. The problem is that this always defines a shifting target. A Conservative in 1780 wanted to return to the kingdom, while a Liberal wanted the Articles of Confederation. To further confuse things, various writers add adjectives and phrases, such as ‘Classical Liberal’, ‘Neo-con’, or ‘Compassionate Conservative’.
The terms 'Left' and 'Right' are also used to describe political positions. I personally have three problems with them. First, I refuse to be classed based on the seating arrangement in the assembly of the 1848 French revolutionary government. Second, they are frequently used as an image of the two wings of an airplane. But if you don’t like the plane’s direction, which side you sit on is irrelevant. Lastly, they also give rise to other terms, like ‘Middle of the Road’. A Texas humorist defined the problem here best by his book title: “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”.
Rebublic and Democracy
These terms describe forms of government. Many activists today seek to restore us to a ‘Republic’, but that doesn’t clarify the meaning. The meaning and definition is so involved that it will serve as the subject of several later blog entries. However, at considerable risk of disagreement, the short definitions I use regularly are:
- A republic is a government where each person as an individual is sovereign.
- A democracy is a government where the people as a whole or a majority are sovereign.
What follows would be footnotes if this were a book, so if you’d skip them there, go ahead and skip them here. (If anybody knows a better way to do this, I’d love to hear from you).
Bill Clinton’s comment is in his video testimony of August 17, 1988 and was delivered to the grand jury in the Lewinsky affair.
Lincoln’s quote was part of a speech delivered in Baltimore in April of 1864; I took it from page 121 of volume 7 of “The Writings of Abraham Lincoln” published in 1906.
Jefferson’s quote showed up late because it wasn’t in any of the standard collections, such as Ford’s Centennial Collection of Jefferson’s Works in 12 volumes. It came from a letter to an Isaac Hall Tiffany, Esq. written on April 4, 1819. You can get a look at it of the Library of Congress website under The Jefferson Papers, Series 1, and general correspondence.
The funny book title can be found in a number of places. It was by Jim Hightower, published by Harper Collins in 1979, entitled “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”, (ISBN 0060187663). P.S. If your mind is a strange as mine you might find the book worthwhile for a plane ride.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
My first memory of the use of the culture war term and analogy was in Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican convention. I then traced some of his ideas to James Davison Hunter's 1991 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America." Hunter was a University of Virginia sociologist who viewed politics as an increasingly uncivil arena split into two sides that share little but mutual antipathy. The book made use of a lot of war descriptions and metaphors and leaves a distinct idea that American politics was in a steep decline.
But while I was checking these references, I found a more serious connection with a darker past.
Part of the path leads through Herbert Baxter Adams (1850-1891). He taught poly sci and history at Johns Hopkins, and is sometimes referred to as 'America's first professional historian'. He was the first active academic to gain a PhD in history, and he earned it at Heidelberg, Germany in 1876. This meant that he was in Germany during their culture war. What follows is a sort of review of the book this led me to read.
Bohm’s Der Kulturkampf: 1871-1873
Wilhelm Bohm published his “Rise of Bismarck” in 1887-1889. This book is volume 6 of that 8 volume set and gives a detailed look at the events of the three or four years after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This volume is entitled “Fȕrst Bismark als Redner… der Kulturekamph…” (Culture Struggle) and it expounds on the actions taken to create the modern state of Germany. Parsing the text and the multi part compound nouns make it a slow read (or reveal my barely adequate German). Some of the twists and changes in political alignment are also hard to follow. But comparing the time with our modern culture war is certainly informative.
Bismarck was manipulating and forcing change on people’s fundamental ideas, and he largely succeeded. There are certainly actions we would view as alarming: people and clergy were imprisoned, property was seized or destroyed, and Bismarck certainly earned his nickname of ‘the iron chancellor’, but with consideration he comes off pretty well as the good guy. While he did create Germany as a country, he also had a good number of unintended consequences.
Before Bismarck Germany (the area) actually contained a number of countries, and the views of a Hamburger, Prussian, Bavarian, Palatinate (I skipped a fair number) were different. After him they were melded into one Reich. We would see his actions as harsh and abrupt, but his challenges were also very great. He was coming out of 250 or so years where those little nations had been walked over, or fought in, looted and burned by their neighbors. They had been hit by the French, the Spaniards, the Netherlanders, the English, Austrians, Italians, Poles, Swedes, and Russians among others. After Bismarck, Germany was a world power, although they would start colonization about 100 to 150 years later than the majors had moved around the globe.
As a obiter-dicta (by the way comment); these wars gained some experience for the Germans but reduced them to such relative poverty that the only viable 'export' for some of the rulers in these countries was to lease out their own conscripts as mercenaries... the 'Hessians' in the American Revolution.
It is interesting to think about Bismarck's results compared with our culture war especially that set of unexpected consequences. His ideas of government were more democratic and open than the state that resulted in the Kaiser’s Germany of WWI or Hitler’s Reich in WWII. He also wound up with ‘Secularism’ as a sort of religion, and this seems to be an intentional target of our Collectivist activists. Overall I found the book worth while, although most would prefer a more modern translation.
Back to Adams
We never hear this anywhere, but I will look into Herbert Baxter Adams further in a later post. He figures in several trends that contributed to our modern society: the specialization and fragmentation of education (he was the first PhD); defining histry and sociology as a domain belonging to trained specialists, and had lots of his ideas printed and distributed by the U.S. government. Thus he affected both high-school and college teaching of history. This blog is already too long, so for now just look him up in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Baxter_Adams.
Monday, May 10, 2010
This war (so far) is mainly one of ideas; ideas about government, taxes, laws, religion, education, and so on. There are at least four major parties; and few clear-cut names. I'm going to call them the 'Individualist', 'Collective', 'Religious', and 'Authoritarian'. I've tried to separate them based on what seems to be the primary or head of state for each group. But each has so many variants and things that come close that more explanation seems necessary. So hang on, here goes.
From the standpoint of anthropology, this certainly ignores some groups and examples from the Amazon head hunters and Borneo cannibals (primitive cultures) to Communes or religious groups in the west. They are all indeed unique cultures, but I expect no actions on their part and expect little or no interaction. They don't harm me, and I don't expect to harm them.
I could have named the involved cultures after the seeming major powers in terms of nations: the American, European, Islamic, and Asian. But that use means constant qualification since we (for example) have in America an active struggle between the Individualists and Collectivists. Or I could name them after their primary goals: Liberty, Equality, Sanctity, and Stability. But that also requires constant explanation since (again for example) many in all cultures do seek personal sanctity. One way to bring this to a more rapid close is to give a brief outline of each. I should also warn that no one (including myself, an Individualist), can undertake such an outline in less than 50,000 words without allowing their choices and preferences to come into play.
In an Individualist culture each individual sets their own standards and values, each may determine their own means and their own ends. Within such a society common (and perhaps necessary) values include tolerance, private property, free markets, and justice; all supporting the primary goal of Liberty.
In a Collectivist culture the group as a whole determines standards and values. All members are guided or forced to comply with the same set of standards. The primary goal is Equality, and all other ends become subsidiary to it. Equality here is much more like the French 'Egalite' and seems to mean equal outcomes or results rather than equal rights and chances.
The goal of this culture is to ensure that all members have and maintain the same set of standards and values, practices and ends, starting with their beliefs about God. I can't make any extension to this statement without delving deeply into philosophy, so we'll pass for now. I just need to point out that what our current culture war has to deal with is the more extreme versions of Islam.
The Authoritarian culture integrates all the goals and methods of society (the means and the ends); merging them into one and administered as a unit by a ruling man of clique. Many titles have been used but this is basically the 'strong man' version of things. Stability is the keyword goal; which in this case means the preservation of that particular dictator, along with his descendants or chosen heirs.
Back to the War
For now my major concern is the Induividualist-Collectivist struggle to see which group or culture will control the future of the United States federal and local governments. But I cannot totally ignore the others since each would welcome the collaps of America and take any advantage they couldd or the collapse of our individualist heritage.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Thursday, May 6, 2010
I spent 35 years working with mainframe computers as a programmer, analyst, manager, trainer and consultant. I am now disabled (a stroke) and I'm a couple of years out of practice. I am married and my wife and I have grown old together and put up with each other for almost 43 years. We have raised three children and (so far) been blessed with three grandchildren.
I am a Christian (a life-long catholic), but don't agree (mostly in private) with all of that church's positions. Politically, I am an independent, but have been both a Republican and a Libertarian. Some years ago a friend described my outlook as "... slightly to the right of Attila the Hun." I can best describe my current position as somewhere between an anarcho-capitalist and a libertarian.
I am an American, and have been part of the rising-tide of its civilization. I think the best way to give you a feeling for this is by sharing some of the occupations that hapened along the way. My GG-grandfather was a German immigrant, a laborer and a farmer; my G-grandfather was a blacksmith and liveryman; my grandfather was a steam engineer; my father was a chemical engineer and executive. I was a computer systems engineer, and my son in his turn is a physicist with a PhD. My daughters are an accountant and a housewife-mother, respctively.
After two intense years of education (mathematics, languages, and theology), then a couple of years of night school (mathematics), I dropped out without a degree. I have had time over the years to meet and talk with people ranging from congressmen, senators, and governors to the homeless; from scientists to laborers; from business executives to clerks; from farmers to industrialists; and from billionaires to the poor. I have taught Sunday school and been a scoutmaster and served a tour in the infantry. I have lived in the midwest, the east coast, and the southwest.
Thanks to my stroke, I've had the chance to study liberty for ten years. I started out with an interest in the revolutionary war; then spread out to include philosophy, more history, economics, politics, government and law. The result of this is something you will have to judge for yourself from the contents of various blog entries....