Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Take on How To Be a Writer -- or Not

The essay in this link discusses "how to be a fiction writer" by a successful sci-fi writer (Jerry Pournelle, a nice guy whom I had the privilege to share a beer with last summer, coincidentally).  It is interesting, if inadequate -- it points you in the general direction of north, but won't get you to the Pole.  But at the end he links to an even more interesting discussion of "how to be a writer" by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein in this transcript.

Heinlein offers more substance in his guidance to budding writers (in this case the '73 class of midshipmen at the Naval Academy), though I have serious disagreements with a few things he says.  (Quite aside from his opinions on a proper morality, which are horrible -- based on a Kantian hierarchy that puts the individual on the bottom and makes self-sacrifice for the group the supreme imperative, but yet, in a twisted way, he still upholds the absolute sanctity of individual selfishness. Go figure.)

There's a common theme among many successful writers who say you "can't teach writing"-- they say you just have to write to "know" how to write. I mean, yes, you can't learn brain surgery from a book, either; you've got to operate on a lot of cadavers and patients. But I do think there is more to teach than "work at it a lot".  

That cliche grates on me, I confess. Having investigated this in more grueling detail than I care to bore you with, I think there are many reasons why writing (or more specifically, fiction writing) hasn't been taught well, so with that in mind, let this fiction-writing novice (well, screen-writing novice) take a stab at just a few things that I think are relevant here:

1. The existing approaches to teaching fiction writing suck, big time.  All of them.  Get any of the books on the subject.  You'll come away with an invincible sense of "AHA!  Now I know what to do!"  And then you'll go and try to apply that wonderful theory and flounder hopelessly in developing a really good story.  Exhibit A:  Hollywood.   Hollywood is wonderful at knowing a good story when they see it, but creating a good story is largely hit-or-miss with them.  (Exhibit B:  every sequel ever made.)  

ALL of these books suffer from hopelessly misplaced methods of analyzing other writer's works, and randomly misplaced tips for how to outline and develop your own work according to "successful" books, movies or plays. ("The three act structure is generally recognized as superior..." blah, blah-blah, delivered in a very stiff New England tone of upper-crust condescension, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)  

In other words, they largely advocate the art of imitation, achieved by stringing together cliches with a cultivated look of faux originality. 

Yes, on that basis, no one will learn writing.  In the absence of proper theories of nuclear engineering you couldn't teach the design of nuclear power plants, either.  I mean, if you were doing it based on a theory of alchemy and woodworking, you wouldn't get very far, would you?  You'd just have to rely on those who possess the noble art of nuclear "divination", who innately "know", somehow, the nuances of the proper metal alloys and cooling systems and radioisotopes required.  That's sort of where writing is today, with regard to schooling, and why it "can't" be taught. The proper theory hasn't been properly expounded into people's heads.

2. Writing good fiction requires a very broad base of knowledge, much more so than other fields, and it has to be almost fully automatized before you can write anything of real quality -- especially, compelling dialogue.   (Very few writers today write good dialogue in my opinion.  Mainly they're very good at avoiding writing dialogue -- at all costs.)  Ayn Rand discusses this somewhat in her fiction course, but barely touches on what should be emphasized with a jack-hammer to the brain:  you've got to train your subconscious, and then rely on it while writing -- give it the reins.  In writing, deep analysis of the quality of what you've written comes after trained "intuition" (ie, programmed cognitive reaction to a particular set of concretes defined according to a creative purpose) puts words on paper.  Anything else breeds "analysis paralysis" and crappy writing.

3. Writing requires the ability and interest in doing lots of research--say, 16th century history if you want to do a novel on Magellan's voyage. Heinlein touches on some of the things you need to know, but I think he goes way overboard in demanding encyclopaedic knowledge before you even get started.  You could spend a lifetime acquiring seven PhD's, by his standard, before you ever wrote a single word (though he was very knowledgable himself).

4. Much more important is the writer's ability to gain insights into the nature of human psychology as such, and how it's expressed in human interactions, culture, trade, wars, business, romance, etc.  This is how you get to universal conflicts that anyone can relate to. 

5. Writing fiction also requires a certain kind of psychology in the writer himself -- the kind of psychology that relishes the experience of human conflict and seeks it out in developing a story line, while understanding it at a deep emotional level. Most people want to avoid conflict at all costs.  They run like hell from it.  No.  If this is what you want, become an accountant, not a fiction writer.  A writer wants to make the lives of his characters a living hell -- and drag out the suspense of it as long as possible -- before resolving anything.  If you can't stand the pressure, get out of the cooker.

6. Writing also requires a psychology that genuinely enjoys observing and understanding people and their interactions, and finds them fascinating. If you don't have that psychology to start with, it's going to be an incredibly uphill battle to acquire it, though it can be done.  Introverts and overly cautious people need not apply -- unless they're willing to become a whole lot more extroverted and willing to take risks in their own lives. 

7. And it requires a certain devil-may-care self-confidence and separation of your self-worth from what you write.  You can spend a lot of time outlining a story to reach a clear plot, theme and climax, and then find you have to chuck it more or less as you start writing in detail--
because the moment you start putting words in characters' mouths they're going to become vastly more real to you, and this will suggest much better how they are going to get you to the climax -- what they need to be, who is important, who isn't, along with new conflicts, the need for new characters, etc.  The old cliche of a writer having to be willing to "murder his darlings"  (the precious baubles of your words on paper) is relevant here, but more accurately, in chucking a detailed plot on the spur of the moment for an even better arc, a writer has to be willing to murder the psychological support system of his self-image.  That takes confidence and a belief in your ability to do it all over again from scratch, faster, easier, and better.

8. For that reason you've got to have a certain artist's psychology when you do outline a story (IMHO), one which doesn't obsess too much on controlling every word and deed of each character like the roles in a Victorian drama.  Your outline will simply change too much when you do the detailed writing.  Broad strokes are the ticket -- what's my climax?  Who are my characters and what do they need to be to get me there? What are the key sub-conflicts?  Etc. This is sort of what the chapter titles in a novel accomplish for a writer.  Writing is very much Aristotelian causation in action -- define your entities (your characters and their purposes), define your goal (the climax), set up the situation (what kind of world are the characters in), and the action will drive naturally toward the climax if you understand all that and aren't just jumping from cliche to cliche. 

9. You also need a very active mind in relation to making your own observations about life in general.  You need something original to say.  Some unique observations or perspective you can put in the mouths or choices of your characters.  If all you're doing is stringing cliches together, you're wasting your time.  The story will be boring and predictable by definition.  (Note that you might make a good living at it if your audience wouldn't know a cliche from meat cleaver.  Hence, the miracle of Titanic.)

10. You need to be brutally honest with yourself and about what you're writing.  If it's crap, it's crap (ever see "Educating Rita"?), and you've got to be willing to confront that even if it hurts (it will).  In the beginning you won't know what's crap, but your "crap-detector" will always creep ahead of your writing ability and keep you on your toes. If you're honest with yourself, your crap-detector will scare the crap out of you and pull you forward to greater heights of competence and skill. 

11. And you need to be highly selfish to write.  I don't mean this as a cliche.  Writing is a very personal and possessive thing, and you have to do it for those reasons -- the thrill of putting your words on paper, the excitement of reaching your climax with your characters and your meaning attached to it.  (Remember Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone?  Typing the last words of her latest novel and weeping with joy?  So true.)  And the desire to be alone for hours on end, day after day after day, for up to 6 hours each day, shut up in a room, no TV, no radio, inside your own thoughts, for the rest of your writing career...

All this is hopelessly inadequate as a summary -- I've probably left out at least fifty other key points, including many I don't even know -- but it does provide the broad strokes of some things *I* think are essential to being a fiction writer, speaking as someone who's spent a lot of time trying to learn the craft, but who hasn't made it yet (ie, a paying gig).  

If I was to summarize all this I'd put it this way:  if you want to be a writer, you have to want to make yourself the kind of person who can write.  It isn't about learning to write so much -- that's almost easy if you've got the right psychology to begin with.  It's about learning to be re-make yourself as the kind of person possessing the psychology of one who can write. 

A lot of what Ayn Rand said about writing is very relevant but I would say hopelessly inadequate in itself if you don't start with the writing "gene".  She just outlines the broad principles ("writing 101") and barely touches on the necessary psychology you have to develop.  Meaning no criticism whatsoever because the subject is so complex, I class the entire corpus of her discussions on fiction writing as "Writing 101" because if you don't have the innate writer's psychology it's going to take several years (maybe many years, maybe a lifetime) of firm guidance to acquire it -- at least if you want to do good writing.  I think the training required to be a writer is not so much about learning how to model your stories on "successful" plot constructions and character conflicts (very little of that, really), but on how to cultivate the writing mentality itself.  

Though some people do have an "innate" ability--the Ayn Rand's, Victor Hugo's, Paddy Chayefsky's, and, to lesser degree, the J.J. Abrams' and Aaron Sorkin's all had big head starts, psychologically speaking.  

I shouldn't say "gene".  I really do think dramatic writing can be learned with the right committment and enough time and effort.  If Ayn Rand started out at the top of the evolutionary ladder of writing talent, most of us are still waddling with Cro-magnon cave dwellers and gnawing on the petrified bones of stale cliches from hairy pachyderms.  To mix this metaphor even more, most of us start out a lot further from the starting line of good writing.  Sometimes a few miles from the starting line (like me), which a fervent desire alone won't overcome unless there's some guidance for how to even enter the race.  

Others simply lack the committment.  But here the motto of Delphi in Ancient Greece applies:  Know Thyself.  If you can't muster the committment to develop the writing mentality, don't waste your time in deluding yourself you can be a fiction writer.  You never will.  Set yourself down, look yourself in the mirror and take stock:  are you willing to become a different person?

But if you can overcome the basic psychological hurdles, then I think a knowledge of the broad principles will let fiction writing come more or less naturally to you, with enough practice.  Then you just write a lot till you're good at it.  And in a word, speaking as a novice, that's my take on the subject. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The "Myth" of Talent?

Someone on facebook mentioned a book that asserts the "myth of talent" ("Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success"), and I replied,
I've argued myself for years that "intelligence" and "aptitude" as measured in tests are largely overrated, and the difference in innate potential between people at birth is very little -- what they become is very much how they choose to develop their minds. Can someone be Mozart by 21 if they start at 16? Maybe not -- Mozart had a big head start: a unique perspective on music from a very early age, fostered to some great degree by excellent and early training, but I think it was much more about his own fascination and love of musical relationships and his recognition that he could create them that spurred his remarkable creativity.

After childhood it becomes harder and more time consuming to "re-wire" your brain, to use a tired cliche, though it has some validity -- a brain must physically change to operate differently,and that provides guidance for the time-scale and effort and perserverance required. But I do think "talent" (let's define terms somewhat more: skills or creative ability or ability to reason, loosely) is something that can be developed with both perserverance (a lot of it -- pianists practice 4 - 8 hours a day, every day, for instance, and why should it be less for anything else?), proper training (which can accelerate the process, because true auto-didacts are exceptionally rare in human history), and something new I'd add to the equation: a committment to their goal that transcends old premises.
That is, plenty of people are willing to work "hard". Very, very few (to be pedantic) are willing to reexamine everything about their choices in life, including ideas, premises and habitual method of mental functioning (ie, psycho-epistemology) that stands in the way of that, and expurge or alter it whenever and whereever necessary.

So now we're at the root of the problem. Is "talent" a myth? Innate talent, mostly. There are outliers of extraordinary innate ability (too often "idiot savants"), but the bell curve of IQ is largely a chimera in my view. Ayn Rand herself argued that anyone of normal aptitude could have chosen to be like her. But almost no one does. (In thousands of years of human history, only a few have.)

At the other end of the scale, there's those people who are practically beyond redemption. Talentless empty souls of petrified mental functioning. They do what they do and are capable of no more, and we know many of them instantly when we meet them.

And in between there's those who are capable of limited elevation in their abilities according to their desires and committment. With the right motivation, they can do a lot more, and in the context of job within a business, they can choose to perform exceptionally for the tasks they were hired to do, and even grow beyond that. Value-aggregation is an enormous incentive. Money. This is one reason entrepreneurs can do so much. Once you acquire value (such as money, though not exclusively), and see how its done, it acts like positive feedback to incredibly sharpen your thinking to acquire more value.

But there are also a lot of people who simply lack this ambition. For whatever reason, by adulthood, all the ambition has been sucked out of them -- if they ever had it. You may recall the old story of the capitalist who tried to raise productivity of some Amazonian indians working for him in a business he just acquired. He reasoned they didn't work harder because the pay was too low, so he quadrupled their pay... then the indians worked 1/4 as long and then left their jobs for the rest of the week. They had all they wanted.  A complete mental state of arrested ambition.

More than metaphorically, that's how a lot of people view their mental development of new skills and abilities and interests, unfortunately. So is "talent a myth"? It depends on what you're doing, how you're motivated, how much historical "baggage" you have in your own mental development, and what you're being asked to do.
In crude IQ terms (I really detest the concept of IQ tests as practiced), I think any average person with the right motivation can raise their IQ in functional terms by at least 30 points. They can become great businessmen, for instance. (Money is the easiest motivator.) The biggest obstacle, however, is the committment and recognition of the need to do "whatever is necessary" (if you recall that line from the movie "Body Heat").

So, from a management perspective, you don't need "superstars" for most jobs. Usually, good leadership of clear vision can bring the best out of "average" people (recognizing that "average" can become exceptional by choice). But you do have to recognize where you might need a superstar -- someone who is already "there" or close to it -- in the talent needed to get the job done before the company goes broke. The Mozart or other brilliant mind who already has a lifetime of effort and passion behind his ability in the here and now. 
That might make him a prima donna and a pain in the ass -- but know when you need him.  If you want to rationalize that you don't need him -- when you do -- then you are setting yourself up for failure and establishing yourself as a mediocrity determined to prove mediocrity is exceptional as a rationalization of your existence.  Exceptional people recognize exceptional ability.
I'm thinking primarily of startup companies, here, which is my own interest. Mature companies need much less of this on a per capita basis, but they do so often eventually sink and die because they fail to recognize when and where they simply must have the exceptional person, and they often develop hiring practices that entrenches and reinforces mediocrity, right up to the top of the company. (How can mediocrities recognize talent?)

So... the short answer is: most people can choose to be exceptional, and that puts them in the range of most jobs. But the greater the distance they must travel to get there, and the more mental baggage they must overcome, and the greater the contradictions that hold them back, and the less the incentives motivating them -- the more untenable it becomes. Then you need "talent": the person who already has a passion for doing something well, and a lifetime of doing it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sum of all Fears...

Over at Pajamas, someone commented that Obama is really not a Marxist, just a narcissist (to sum up a lengthy assertion), and I had to reply as follows:
I'm not sure what it means to say Obama is nothing but a set of "psychological agendas".  Aren't we all.  Yes, he's a power-luster.  That's the very definition of a communist (he's not a socialist).  By definition people are drawn to communism by forms of megalomania -- it's an ideology bred for power lust.  But to dismiss the ideas the man advocates -- which are the narcotics of that creed -- is to miss the great danger. 

A man is what he upholds, and is what he does.  Obama upholds the tenets of communist Marxism, lock, stock and gunbarrel.  You might debate the label "communist" (I don't) but you have to call him a Marxist. That he has a strong nihilist and megalomaniacal streak is simply a reflection of those ideas. Where *didn't* Marxism destroy everything it touched?  Where didn't it seek total control over other people? That Obama exhibits some traits of borderline madness--where *didn't* any Marxist leader exhibit that?  The ideas create the man.

I'm not saying Obama is a genius, nor even a true "intellectual" -- he originates nothing. He is, in Ayn Rand's words, a total "second-hander". But he is well aware of the ideas at play in our world. Ignorant, no. Brilliant no. Evil, yes.  Call the man what he really is, is all I'm asking. Recognize the full danger of the man by the nature of what he is, is all I'm asking. 

Ideas are the prime movers of history, much more than individual men.  Yes, created by men, but once in play, evil ideas infect like a disease any other men who don't have the proper antidote -- adherence to reason, fealty to reality, and the ideas that implement that: a correct understanding of the nature of Man (he has to use his mind to support his own existence and be happy) and individual rights as the only proper function of government--which is the *cause* of capitalism. 

But ignore the role of ideas and you ignore the danger of the disease.  Prune one man from the gene pool -- another replaces him. 

Given the ideas at play in our culture for 100 years, a man like Obama *had* to appear.  It wasn't a matter of "if", but when. So don't place all the danger in the man. He's really a straw man.

Obama is nothing more than the current figurehead of many evil ideas under a red umbrella, which have been stalking this world for far too long.  That he is something of a caricature himself is merely a visceral statement of the fact that his ideals have become something of a caricature:  Marxism.  But he represents, unfortunately, way too many people who still hold and advocate those ideas, at least in this country. (Don't kid yourself, Marxism is discredited as an ideal everywhere else that has seen it in action.) To imbue all the power in the man's shortcomings is to blind oneself to the danger and let the nature of his ideas run amuck, unseen and unrecognized for the full danger they represent.   

(And as a side note:  those same ideas have deeply infected the Republicans. The neo-cons are the arch-examples of this.  Marxism is just the political implementation of enforced altruism, and the neo-cons uphold that ideal. They are more dangerous than the Marxists because they conceal their ultimate motives so well, even from themselves.)

Thrown Under the Bias

This is a great op-ed by a former Ukrainian (now living in NY) attacking the TSA goons ("Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Have Their Junk Squeezed"), but I also like the fact that he upholds.... drum roll... objective reality. Wow.  What a concept.

But what I really liked was this argument against TSA security procedures that show no bias towards anyone and randomly select among all for the strip and grope:
[what if the government] applied the same “unbiased randomness” to all other activities ... the Fire Department would randomly douse one house per neighborhood per week, inevitably soaking a real fire every so often. The Sanitation Department would remove random objects from people’s driveways — a garbage bag, a car, and sometimes a random family member. City hospitals would perform random heart surgeries and treat patients for random diseases without bias towards their actual malady. And Mayor Bloomberg himself would invest his money randomly, by spinning the wheel at Atlantic City to see what he should do with his billions. ... [or] the FDA require all Americans to take equal doses of Thorazine to prevent individual psychosis. [or] the government-run Fanny Mae doesn’t engage in an equal redistribution of subprime loans … No, wait, scratch that. Rather, if Janet Napolitano’s personal broker decides to invest equally in all stocks regardless of their performance...
I'd like to see this argument developed further. We ought to have a national contest for the most ridiculous "unbiased random" things the government could do us.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Goons, Loons and Other Scrofulous Creatures

Back to ruminating on more serious matters.

I read this article by Charles Krauthammer, who argues that Obama's primary reason for agreeing with the Republican extension of the Bush tax cuts was political expediancy so he could extend the stimulus. Perhaps. Or not.

I agree with Krauthammer that extending the tax cuts in the absence of budget cuts amounts to stimulus, but it's a continuation of a status quo that's been going on since Bush. The economy has kinda absorbed that message already. The Treasury's "quantitative easing" was going to give us a trillion dollar stimulus *anyway*, and the only thing worse than stimulus is stimulus with tax increases. The only thing that the government could do good right now is cut the goddamned budget by something substantial -- say, 2 or 3 trillion dollars -- and start firing federal workers en masse, by the millions. Ain't gonna happen, though.

I stand by my contention that the main reason for Obama agreeing to extend the tax cuts is to get that bill passed *now* so he can get the START treaty done next week. It might not happen -- strangely, and ironically, the Left, represented by Socialist Bernie Sanders, is standing in his way -- but Obama's primary goal is the destruction of the United States' nuclear deterrent, and that's what's motivating him more than stimulus.

However, I agree with Krauthammer that the Republican's are completely ignoring the message of the election. Utterly. There is no evidence whatsoever that they learned a single thing, and the next election will prove it with candidates like Paul Ryan. (I predict he will have Palin his running mate, giving the Republican's their dream team of pretty boy and goldilocks -- she's already saying nice things about him.)

My take on events right now is that there is a pure, unadulterated evil stalking Washington the likes of which has never taken over the place. Despite good trends, we're heading towards some kind of political armageddon in this next election. As the good rises up, the bad is redoubling their efforts. The good better be very, very good.

If both parties get their way (either Obama Term 2 or Ryan Term 1), I think the country may be irreversibly headed towards some kind of total economic collapse, social breakdown and complete dictatorship in 10 - 20 years after that. I won't say it's inevitable ("may") cause my predictive abilities are far from perfect, but things will get really, really bad with either candidate in charge. Seriously, our choices are going to be Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters vs. Darth Vader and the Empire. It's that bad.

It might require some kind of general uprising that goes beyond the Tea Party, and an American version of Marie Antoinette's fate to re-vamp both parties and stop it, but you've got to know you're in a war to win it, you've got to know what you're fighting for to wage it, and you've got to know what you want to replace it with or you'll descend into anarchy when you defeat the other guys. Red Army vs. White Army (remember what Ayn Rand wrote about that.)

There's too few people in this country right now that know any of this, so it ain't gonna happen. More likely is the country descends into pure despotism in the next 5-10 years, and in 15 - 20 years the people rise up in pure anarchy, civil war, the country becomes balkanized, etc. -- or worse, they become complacent and accepting European-style serfs. None of it pretty. The only hope for this country is if enough people learn about Objectivism. The only hope.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hippos from Space

There's a time for ruminating on START treaties, TSA goons, theories of induction, the end of the world as we knew it.... and there's a time for fun.   One of my favorite activities is vicarious travel via Google Maps or Earth.  This week takes us on a big-game expedition to the deepest bowels of the inner reaches of Africa.   The southwest corner of the Central African Republic, to be exact.  Latitude 3o 12' 04.13" N, Long. 16o 07' 02.79" E.; You can copy that directly into Google Earth to visit yourself.   Let's journey there, shall we?

Note the little village in the picture above.  Now zoom in a bit more and see what's there...

My personal guess -- that's a lot of hippopotami swimming around.   Click on the pic to enlarge.  I've scanned this area of Africa before and seen large groups of them in other rivers.  So cool to think you can see this stuff without watching a Tarzan movie.  How else can you go to this part of the world?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New START a Dead End

My take on the Obama tax cut offer is that he's offering only to try to quickly clear the tax legislation from the Senate agenda so he can pass the new START treaty with Russia before he loses much of his Senate votes in a few weeks. It needs 60 votes. This treaty is an absolute disaster for us -- it's a completely one-sided nuclear arms reduction that will eviscerate our strategic deterrent. I've been warning that this was a top priority of Obama's for over 2 years. Some of you know why I think that.

The "Republican" leading the charge in the Senate is Richard Lugar. Consider that before Obama ever even ran for President, Lugar was trying to pull Obama (a few months in the Senate after his election) onto the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where things like START are brought to a vote. Then, Lugar took Obama to Moscow (again, before he ran for President), and the two disappeared into a locked room at the airport for something like 4 hours, with no communication with anyone from their entourage.

I've long had grave doubts about Lugar (I like that word "grave", and it fits in this case--the guy looks like an undertaker), going back something like 15 years. In my firm opinion the guy is a communist posing as a Republican. Maybe I can't call him a "mole" if he's American born, but I do think he's been deliberately working against American interests, like Strobe Talbot was (Clinton national security advisor), whom Sergei Tretyakov, our most important defector in 20 years (he ran the U.N. spying operation of the Russian SVR/KGB) called "the most important American asset Russia had in the 1990s" (before Tretyakov was killed this summer by Putin). I might note that Lugar was a friend of Talbot and worked with him frequently.

Lugar has been working furiously right now to build up the votes he needs for this START treaty. It is very much the top Obama priority.

Obama, you may remember, also wrote a paper in college on nuclear arms reduction.  You might argue that's his motivation here, but you may also note that it's the motivation of the communists, too.  And the Russians.  They can't get Cap and Trade right now (which is ideal for weakening the infrastructure of the United States, a long-time goal), so all priority has to go to START.

Monday, December 6, 2010

One Cell Short of a Full Lobotomy

Reading this story about a muslim woman, arrested for drunken driving,
BOULDER, Colo. (AP) ― A Muslim woman who refused to remove her headscarf for a Boulder County jail booking photo has been told she'll have to explain her refusal to a judge.
I thought: is this not political correctness gone insane, when the police defer to an arrestee merely because she is Muslim?  Then the same day I saw this PJ column
Democrats on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
December 5, 2010
and was reminded again of an excellent talk called "Modernism and Madness", delivered in 1994 at the Ford Hall Forum, which argued (from memory) that there appeared to be a relation between the insanity of post-modernism in the intellectual life of the country (or world) and a resurgence of genuine schizophrenia among people who adhere to its tenets. I've long remarked myself on the fact that many on the far Left seem on the verge of full-fledged psychosis (seriously, not metaphorically), which leads me back to a scene in my favorite movie script (sorry, no embed code is available, just click to see the video) where network executive Max Schmumacher (William Holden) is leaving Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an ambitious young woman with whom he has been having an affair, and she is forced to confront the mania of her life's work, which included giving communist revolutionaries a weekly reality-based television show, as they robbed and murdered people across the country.  Substituting the nation for Schumacher and Obama for Christensen in this morality play,
It's too late, Barack. There's nothing left in you that
anyone can live with. You're one of Immanuel Kant's
humanoids--and if anyone stays with you, we'll be destroyed.
Like the Democratic Party was destroyed.
Like the Republican Party was destroyed.
Like everything you and the institution
of progressivism touches is destroyed.
You are post-modernism incarnate, Barack.
Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy--
All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality,
as you posture for moral superiority while destroying any
semblance of reason or justice--of honesty, or integrity.
War, murder, death are all the same to you
as bottles of beer--or another photo-op.
The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy
for your amusement, as you destroy the lives of everyone you
profess to love, in the name of everyone
you profess to hate. You even shatter
the sensations of time and space into split-seconds
and instant re-plays--of omnibus bills, tax increases,
climate-change treaties and nuclear defense cuts,
while destroying businesses, fortunes, livelihoods, nations.
You're madness, Barack--virulent madness,
and everything you touch dies with you.
Well, not me!
Not while I can still feel pleasure...and pain...
and love.
For whatever this country once stood for.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's MY party, TSA...

I made this comment to some others, and can't resist posting here:

What if we had another "opt-out" day where everyone that went through security screening asked the TSA if they could touch their junk?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Felt Up with the TSA

This security video shows outrageously thuggish TSA behavior to intimidate a young mother, even violating their own rules, much less the Constitution.  She requested a copy of the video after they held her up from her flight for 40 minutes because she wouldn't put breast milk through an X-ray machine. They were waiting for her when she arrived at security screening, because she complained a week earlier -- a cop told her this.  The TSA had asked to cop to arrest her this time.  She had a copy of the TSA rules, and they refused to let her access to it before stuffing her in a holding cell.  On what legal authority in the absence of any crime can anyone do that?  Only the legal authority of a slave state.

This is silent, with long dead zones between some of the text. Just drag the progress bar to speed past the woman's waiting, and waiting and waiting in her glass cell.

From Poor Robb's Almanac

Reading some of the comments to an excellent Forbes online column by Wendy Milling, I couldn't fail to be dismayed by the readers there (if that is the word) who failed to grasp what she was saying, so I had to leave my own comment:
Too many of these commenters are forgetting what Ben Franklin said:
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Milling is right. The solution to air security is to destroy the states that train, sponsor, harbor and support terrorists, not to expect all Americans to sacrifice their Fourth amendment rights (and now First Amendment, too, judging by the TSA's new policy of collecting intel on opponents).
If we as a nation choose to passively and meekly accept the routine, daily violation of our rights as the norm, America as an ideal will have died.
A friend remarked that Wendy's article should be "must" reading for everyone in Congress.  Agreed.  Someone care to send that telegram?

(excerpts only here)

Nude Scanners Vs. The Foundations Of Capitalism
Wendy Milling, 11.30.10, 10:00 AM EST

To make travel safe, improve foreign policy rather than violate our rights.

Just as the moral is the practical, so is the immoral impractical.

By now, anyone who does not live in a cave, and everyone who does, is aware of the TSA's policy of putting passengers through the Scylla of nude scanning or the Charybdis of "enhanced" pat-downs, which involve breast and genital contact.

...The right to liberty includes your right to physically move about in the world in pursuit of your goals.

...The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness therefore include the right to be free of interference with flying.

...You cannot reach your flight destination if you are sitting in jail or prevented from flying, and being offered an alternative that you cannot accept because it goes against your values is not a "choice," but coercion.

...The nude scanners and enhanced pat-downs are desperate measures to achieve a marginal return on security in order to compensate for a patently failed foreign policy, and they represent a crossing point--not a Rubicon, but an event horizon of a national security black hole.

...All it would take to return to the era of safe and unmolested air travel would be to ruthlessly stamp out Islamism by completely destroying all the states that support it and laying down the law for the survivors in those states. Terrorism cannot occur if its perpetrators are dead and its sympathizers thoroughly demoralized.

...People should not have to prove they are not terrorists before boarding an airplane...


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Goose Stepping Toward Despotism

The author of the article below claims he was contacted by a whistleblower at DHS about an internal memo reportedly issued yesterday by head of TSA Janet Napolitano (which I copy here in case it disappears).  The article's author transcribes the memo to avoid prosecution for publishing a classified document, and I offer these bits:
..."any person, group or domestic alternative media source" that actively objects to, causes others to object to, supports and/or elicits support for anyone who engages in such travel "disruptions" at U.S. airports (as defined above) in response to the enhanced security procedures, the [applicable DHS administrative branch] is instructed to identify and collect information about the persons or entities, and submit such information in the manner outlined [within this directive]...
You must pay attention to the phrases "objects to" and "causes others to object to" and think about what that could mean in almost any context, not just airport security.  I believe the author is telling us that these are the exact words in the memo. 
...individuals who engaged in such activity at screening points, it instructs TSA operations to obtain the identities of those individuals and other applicable information and submit the same electronically to the Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division, the Extremism and Radicalization branch of the Office of Intelligence & Analysis (IA) division of the Department of Homeland Security.

...As I have written before, it has nothing to do with security and everything to do with control.
Indeed. Fundamentally, it isn't about security, it's about conditioning us (in the words of that arch-statist, B.F. Skinner) to accept the idea that we have no rights the State may not abridge at their whim.

We will have to take notice of what they do with their information.  Call me a reactionary, but I think that a society that comes to routinely accept daily violations of their Constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments--at the least--is a society headed full-speed into complete despotism. And our leaders know it.

Department of Homeland Security is not only prepared to enforce the enhanced security procedures at airports, but is involved in gathering intelligence about those who don't

DHS & TSA: Making a list, checking it twice
By Doug Hagmann
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Following the publication of my article titled “Gate Rape of America,” I was contacted by a source within the DHS who is troubled by the terminology and content of an internal memo reportedly issued yesterday at the hand of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Indeed, both the terminology and content contained in the document are troubling. The dissemination of the document itself is restricted by virtue of its classification, which prohibits any manner of public release. While the document cannot be posted or published, the more salient points are revealed here.

The memo, which actually takes the form of an administrative directive, appears to be the product of undated but recent high level meetings between Napolitano, John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA),and one or more of Obama’s national security advisors. This document officially addresses those who are opposed to, or engaged in the disruption of the implementation of the enhanced airport screening procedures as “domestic extremists.”

The introductory paragraph of the multi-page document states that it is issued “in response to the growing public backlash against enhanced TSA security screening procedures and the agents conducting the screening process.” Implicit within the same section is that the recently enhanced security screening procedures implemented at U.S. airports, and the measures to be taken in response to the negative public backlash as detailed [in this directive], have the full support of the President. In other words, Obama not only endorses the enhanced security screening, but the measures outlined in this directive to be taken in response to public objections.

The terminology contained within the reported memo is indeed troubling. It labels any person who “interferes” with TSA airport security screening procedure protocol and operations by actively objecting to the established screening process, “including but not limited to the anticipated national opt-out day” as a “domestic extremist.” The label is then broadened to include “any person, group or alternative media source” that actively objects to, causes others to object to, supports and/or elicits support for anyone who engages in such travel disruptions at U.S. airports in response to the enhanced security procedures.

For individuals who engaged in such activity at screening points, it instructs TSA operations to obtain the identities of those individuals and other applicable information and submit the same electronically to the Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division, the Extremism and Radicalization branch of the Office of Intelligence & Analysis (IA) division of the Department of Homeland Security.

For “any person, group or domestic alternative media source” that actively objects to, causes others to object to, supports and/or elicits support for anyone who engages in such travel “disruptions” at U.S. airports (as defined above) in response to the enhanced security procedures, the [applicable DHS administrative branch] is instructed to identify and collect information about the persons or entities, and submit such information in the manner outlined [within this directive].

It would appear that the Department of Homeland Security is not only prepared to enforce the enhanced security procedures at airports, but is involved in gathering intelligence about those who don’t. They’re making a list and most certainly will be checking it twice. Meanwhile, legitimate threats to our air travel security (and they DO exist) seem to be taking a back seat to the larger threat of the multitude of non-criminal American citizens who object to having their Constitutional rights violated.

As I have written before, it has nothing to do with security and everything to do with control.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Earth to TSA, you have a Message

Reading this story, I saw
''We're fed up and we're not going to take it any more,'' said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. ''We can remain safe as a society without having to be subjected to intrusive screenings that violate our privacy rights.''
Hell, not just our "privacy" rights -- how about the entire goddamned Constitution.
''We've got to see some action,'' Senator Hutchison said. ''The outcry is huge.''
...Supporters are planning opt-outs at 11 US airports, including New York's JFK, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix, which are among the nation's 10 busiest airports.
Thirty groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumer Travel Alliance, signed a letter earlier this year calling for the TSA to stop using the body scanners, and the Electronic Privacy Information Centre is suing in the Federal Court to block their use.
Unions representing 14,800 pilots at AMR Corp's American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc have urged members to avoid the scanners, while the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants, which together represent 103,000 workers, have pressed officials for a separate screening...
Let's re-visit our decaying, imperialist past, shall we, and look once more at the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I thought once again of one of my favorite movie speeches of all time, and how completely relevant it is at this juncture in time and history:

After publishing this, my wife thought I ought to post the full speech...

Update: A reader sent me this, too:

And this...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Voulez vous coucher avec moi, TSA?

Really, you can't make this merde up. Pardon my French -- sometimes English doesn't capture the essence well enough.

"Forget John Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” experience at the hands of TSA goons in San Diego recently, another victim of Big Sis was told by TSA officials that it was now policy to go even further when dealing with people wearing loose pants or shorts.

"Going through airport security this past weekend, radio host Owen JJ Stone, known as “OhDoctah,” related how he was told that the rules had been changed and was offered a private screening. When he asked what the procedure entailed, the TSA agent responded, “I have to go in your waistband, I have to put my hand down your pants,” after which he did precisely that."
When I was 5 years old, I was in the backseat of the car as my parents were driving somewhere. As little kids are wont to do, I was looking for attention from Mom and Dad, and because I was playing with some bugs in the back, I made a little rhyme:
Uncles and Ants,
     Ants and Uncles,
            The Ants go down your Uncle's pants.
My parents thought that was hilarious for some reason. But now it's the scrofulous hemiptera -- or perhaps, arachnids -- of the TSA that are going down our pants.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stripping the Strippers of their Searches

Reading this story and others...
"Pilots and passengers rail at new airport patdowns"   

I got to thinking how the problem might be solved and have a proposal to put forward.  
I don't think anyone would disagree you simply must have some kind of security screening, or else air travel would have to shut down.  (If you have a counter opinion, I'd like to hear it.) The two questions are:  A) what is the legal justification, and B) how you do it?

A legal justification is tricky in itself, but along the lines of going into any private office building or government building -- they have a right to screen you anyway they want if you want to go in.  And you should be able to decline, though it's clear to me they *don't* have the authority to detain you without cause, handcuff you to a chair, rip up your ticket, and abuse you in any way in the absence of any evidence you've committed a crime, like they did with that female reporter yesterday.  And I would argue the airlines (or whoever owns the airport terminal) have a right to say what the security procedures will be, and to reject them, on their property.

That's not what we have, of course. In my opinion, the TSA as administered is in gross violation of the Constitutional guarantees of due process and presumption of innocence, among others, and they operate like Nazi thugs--literally.

There's a host of related legal problems because of the mixed economy we live in (to use Ayn Rand's term for a mixture of freedom and controls). No government agency should be operating airports, for instance, like City of Denver where I live.  But that's a side point I'm not trying to address.  As Ayn Rand said in "The New Left" in regard to student protesters taking over administration buildings of colleges, the college administrators of public schools had a right to call in the police to evict them.

It's complicated even more when you're in a state of war.  A true state of war is an extraordinary circumstance in which the government *is* entitled to do extraordinary things to protect the nation.  Normally that's a transient inconvenience, but we are in a bastard situation where there is no declared state of war, and yet we are at war with no really determined effort to end it as it needs to be ended -- destroying the states overseas that sponsor, promote, fund and train terrorists. 

So what's happening in our airports is like a mild state of undeclared martial law extending into perpetuity, and the government has de facto seized extra-Constitutional dictatorial powers.  That it hasn't been extended as much outside the airports is only an issue of time;  they've usurped the authority.

(Well, they *have* extended that authority outside of airports--every form of electronic communication in this country is now under their monitering and control, and they also have authority for warrantless bugging and
tracking of your every move via your cellphone, or tracking devices installed secretly on your car, though some of that is being contested in the courts right now.)

Given that context, and the fact that ending the terrorist threat is a much longer term solution (ie, persuading people of the necessity to wage real war against the states that sponsor terrorism), what can we do to either end the violations of our rights, or minimize them in the near-term?

Let's remember a few facts:

  • Terrorists are almost exclusively muslim.
  • Terrorists are mostly of descent from the Middle East, Iran, or Pakistan.
  • They are usually men, though women have been used.
  • They are usually between ages of 16 and 50, and most are in their twenties, but even young children have been used.
  • Terrorists usually associate with other terrorists.
  • Bombs have been hidden in shoes, underwear, phony brassieres, stomachs, rectums and breast implants.
  • Bombs, knives and guns have been inserted into luggage, baby carriages and pockets of unsuspecting travelers.
  • Bombs, knives and guns can be concealed in walking canes, laptop computers, PDAs, cellphones, hats, belt buckles, books, soda cans, bottled water, and any other article you can imagine.
  • Bombs can be assembled on board an aircraft from innocent parts carried aboard by different people, even from different flights.
  • A very small amount of plastic explosives can destroy an airliner--say, one cubic inch of C4.
  • Airliners are and remain the target of first choice for terrorists to achieve maximum dramatic effect.
  • Terrorists are usually very nervous and suspicious and study people around them for threats.
  • They get even more nervous when you ask them basic questions about their background and place of origin.
  • They aren't likely to do well when asked questions about a phony background.
Given all that, you would have some idea who to target for a closer look and talk to--rather than screening every single person with a body cavity search, including crippled old war veterans from Phoenix or housewives from Houston or 2 year old babys from Boise.
Given that airline terrorism is a fact, whether muslim inspired (99%) or other (hijackers like D.B. Cooper, for instance), in the context of that threat, and the fact that at this moment in time we *need* security, what can we do to bring some sanity to how it's administered?

My proposal is this:  the new Republican House should sponsor a law to reign in the extra-Constitutional actions of the TSA, while providing authorization to bypass existing legal proscriptions against "discrimination" (ie, "to observe a difference") so they can implement a screening system more like the Israelis, who profile to single out "travelers of interest". The law should also give airlines veto power over excessive screening procedures, and place legal bounds on TSA authority, including penalties for TSA employees who go beyond that authority.

This proposal wouldn't eliminate the fact that some people would get asked aside for questioning based on their background and associates, or their country of origin or religion.  But it would prohibit TSA from
coercing, restraining, intimidating and confiscating property in the absence of any evidence of a crime.

The standard should be the same as any private office building:  if you want to come in, we have to ask you to submit to X;  if you decline, you must leave.

Since the TSA are a police agency, they still possess the legal authority to observe evidence of a crime and make arrests if evidence is discovered.  That is valid under any objective system of government.

What's better about my proposal over the existing system? 

1.)  It asserts the legal bounds of the authority of the TSA to detain people, and punishes TSA personnel who violate those bounds.
2.)  It provides airline and airport authorities the power to reject overly intrusive screening measures such as "naked body scanners".
3.)  It provides legal authority to override irrational court decisions and legal statutes that prevent police agencies from using legitimate and logical techniques of profiling to identify potential criminals or terrorists based on information at their disposal.
4.)  It greatly reduces the inconvenience to 99% of the population while staying within (arguably) Constitutional limits of authority.
5.)  It would actually improve security.
It's not a perfect solution--that would require eliminating the governments overseas that sponsor, promote, fund and train terrorists--but it would be a big step away from the police state we are now racing towards, and it would restore some Constitutional standards, some decency, and a more objective rule of law.

Friday, November 5, 2010

How to Rig an Election

This sort of thing is why I was drinking beer and taking aspirin on election night. In the story below, you've got to think hard about what's really going on here...
  1. On the day of the election, there was a SHORTAGE of official ballots.
  2. People went to polls and couldn't vote.
  3. The call went out for emergency PHOTOCOPIES of ballots so people could vote.
  4. The Democrats requested that voting hours be EXTENDED for more voting.
  5. Many people voted with the photocopied ballots, and no name on the ballot.
  6. The Democratic candidate is down 8000 votes.
  7. "Bags" of ballots get suddenly found.
  8. Democrats call to have people deputized to count the ballots.
  9. Guaranteed, it will be found that many (all?) of those ballots were photocopied.
You see how they gamed it? They made sure there was a shortage of ballots before the election, and everything else fell into place for manufacturing ballots after the election. If you think I'm being paranoid and conspiratorial, you are living in a fantasy world. The low-level hacks who work for the political parties spend considerable time scheming to concoct methods of vote fraud that appear innocent or are unprovable.

Similar things are done in other states. They did a variation on this in Minnesota to give Al Franken the election there two years ago--whenever the votes were shy, they just manufactured and "found" a few more ballots. Just enough to put Franken over the top.

Of course, what Harry Reid did in Nevada was way over the top. He manufactured an unbelievable number of votes out of thin air. I'm guessing on the order of 100,000. He reversed his polls by 9 points in one day. In my opinion, he did it so egregiously to make a point -- don't mess with him, he's got to the power to do whatever he wants. (This told me he is much more, incredibly more corrupt and dishonest than I suspected. Downright evil, I'd have to classify him. The kind of guy who would be a lawyer to Al Capone.)

When I voted, by the way, there was a guy who was trying to vote twice at the (almost deserted) polling place -- he claimed he'd gotten a mail-in ballot he hadn't sent in. To their credit, the people at the polling place handled him pretty well. There was also a woman who was trying to vote in two counties. This is another shortcoming of not requiring ID and not requiring every voter to have ONE physical address. In past elections, by the way, I've also found, when I got to the polling place, that my registration had magically disappeared, so I couldn't vote.

If the Republican's had any brains at all, they'd recognize that in any race to stuff the ballot box, they are on the losing end. At the top of their agenda should be election reform -- to nationally mandate identification for voting with some kind of uniform system. Had this been done, they wouldn't have lost more than a few seats in this election, including the Senate seat in Colorado.

(Why don't they do it? For sure, they are guilty, too, and my theory is they are afraid of how the chips may fall against them by making the system more honest -- net gain or loss? But I think they are already losing big. They've got nothing to lose.)

One idea I've had is to make ballot receipts mandatory, so a recount can match a ballot with what a voter actually voted -- and require the matching be done in a recount. It could be online. A second idea is to give every voter *two* ballots (say, carbon copy) and have him send them to two separate locations for counting (by mail or other). Both have to match for a vote to count, and if only one gets counted, the election office has to contact the voter to get it straightened out. So what if it takes a week or a month to count ballots, as long as it's done right? By this system, you could do a lot more mail-in ballots and early voting, and let voters check their ballots online.

One thing that should definitely be disposed of, though, is all those electronic voting machines. They're designed like a crooked slot machine. The only way electronic voting should be allowed is with some kind of verification system right back to the voter. You've simply got to have a way for a voter to verify that the vote he cast is the one that was counted.

But in any system, you've got to get the human element out of the counting as much as possible. (I can think of much better systems, by the way, using mathematical methods of error correction and cryptography, but too hard to push through.)

More could be done, but it doesn't require a lot of effort to eliminate 90% of the fraud. The disenfranchisement by fraud that goes on this country right now is becoming staggering, and we're descending to the level of a banana republic.

Bag of Uncounted Ballots Found in Bridgeport

BY Bob Connors
In what has become one of the stranger twists in an already bizarre Governor's race, a bag of uncounted ballots was found in Bridgeport Thursday night.
Republican officials were approached by Democratic operatives and told about the surprise ballot bag, according to Bridgeport GOP Chairman Marc Delmonico.

“It adds to the inconsistencies from the Democratic Party in Bridgeport. It just keeps adding to it,” said Delmonico. “There’s nothing odd about it; there’s certainly nothing missing about it,” said Ed Maley, a representative for the Democratic Party.

Delmonico said Democrats asked to have several people deputized to count the uncounted ballots, but Republicans objected, claiming that wasn't proper procedure in the vote-counting process.

“These ballots are getting extraordinarily heightened scrutiny. They’re being dealt with in a public fashion, an open public process so that everyone can witness it,” said Mark Anastasi, the city attorney for Bridgeport.

Instead the GOP asked police to take custody of the bag of ballots until the matter could be sorted out.

The votes could be pivotal in the race for Governor, in which neither candidate has conceded defeat.

Wednesday, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz declared Democrat Dan Malloy the "unofficial" winner, but numbers released by her office show Republican Tom Foley still leading Malloy by more than 8,000 votes. Those totals do not include any of the vote totals from the City of Bridgeport.

Bridgeport has become the focal point of what has turned into a circus of an election.

A ballot shortage led to long lines on Election Day, and a judge issuing an order to keep polls open until 10 p.m. Tuesday, two hours longer than every other town in the state.

Because of the shortage, many of the votes cast Tuesday were done so on photocopied ballots.

Election officials began counting those ballots just after 5 p.m. Thursday when the new bag of uncounted ballots was discovered.

Bysiewicz said she didn't expect the vote totals from Bridgeport to be submitted to her until Friday at the earliest.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ephemeral Comments on the Inscrutable Nature of Whatever

This isn't for a general audience, but I can't resist posting since, A) I haven't posted anything of substance in awhile, B) I love my own prose too damned much, and C) I find the question of the problem of induction ("how do you know what you know") fascinating, having thought about it for, oh, about 2.5 decades.

My comment started as a response to a message concerning the history of science propounded in the book "The Logical Leap", by David Harriman. For the non-Objectivist audience, this book was done closely in association with Leonard Peikoff. For the non-specialist, I won't expound on the nuances of these parties, just noting that McC is a historian, DH is physicist (not a PhD, though), and LP is a noted philosopher.

Most of those who read this blog (our readership is small, but distinguished) know that there's a controversy between these parties concerning the book, and I was writing to express my agreement with the assessment that there appears to be some kind of personal animus on both sides related to a mildly critical review McCaskey placed on Amazon which led to an angry response from LP. To messenger's credit, when most people were dwelling on the titillatory aspects of the personality conflict, she dug up some real facts of the scientific history in question. (After initially posting the message, I've redacted it, after being reminded by my wife that permission to forward freely is not quite the same as permission to post publicly.  It's not essential to the discussion here anyway.)

My own interest rests primarily with the thesis of the book--a claim to have solved the age-old "Problem of Induction", which I've addressed previously. The history is interesting, but whether Galileo did or did not actually drop balls from the Tower of Pisa has little real effect on Newton's own work in developing a theory of gravitation (which is ground zero for the conflict between McC, DH and LP). I've long had issues with what Harriman has been propounding about how we know we have a valid induction, going back to his first lectures, circa early 1990's.

I heard him talk a couple years ago and he had changed some of his more egregious scientific views relating to denying certain experimental facts about quantum mechanics (which he acknowledged, to his credit--his perspective had been more of a defense of mechanistic determinism), but I found I still had a major issue with the proffered solution for the problem of induction, and I asked him a direct question about it in the Q&A which he didn't answer to my satisfaction.

I recently read his book to see if it could shed any more light, and my problem with the solution put forward is simply this: it demands omniscience. There is no question about this. The formula emulates Ayn Rand's outline for concept formation, but the thesis (to my reading -- it's poorly summarized and scattered all over the book in bits and pieces) is that you must induce from every possible relevant and necessary fact.

It asserts: if the particulars from which you induce are grounded in perceptions, and if you rigorously define the scope of application for your induction, it is valid. (By "particulars" I simply mean perceptions, facts, thoughts, observations, measurements, etc. -- everything that goes into your head to make an induction.)

There's a bit more to their theory than that (the evidence must be non-contradictory, self-consistent and, for a scientific induction, identify an efficient cause), but I would characterize their solution as essentially a deductive formulation: it prescribes a set of rules to get all your factual and evidentiary ducks lined up in a row, at which point you look with your mind's eye, form your induction by an innate mental capacity, and say: it's valid.

This is simply impossible for any but the most trivial induction. Maybe not even for those. There is no way to hold in your head every possible relevant fact to form any kind of even modestly complex theory. No way to even know a priori all of what is relevant and necessary, or what isn't. (As I'm using it, the phrase "relevant and necessary" is my own summary of their presentation--you may criticize my interpretation.) You'd be long waiting on some bottom rung of hell for the Big Freeze before you could collect every relevant fact, organize them all, and then to try to get them all jammed into your skull for the epiphanal moment when you form your induction and say "Aha!" to a world that might not be so ready to take your word that you've done all that correctly.

I've use an example that I've tried before with others, to little avail, but I'll avail myself of it again to underscore the point: I'm an electrical circuit designer. My entire job (30 years) is creating inductions for electronic circuits that do things. Circuits from a few to thousands to even millions of transistors. I have among the most abstract engineering jobs there is.

Being an engineer, the nature of the inductions I do is a little different than a scientific theory, because I create inductions rather than discover them, based on objectives (a human purpose) rather than experimental facts (about nature), but the principle isn't so different. In designing a circuit to moniter and process electrical signals, I have to hold an enormous amount of facts, principles and experience in mind.

Even for a circuit with only a few transistors, it is extremely difficult to make sure I anticipate every possible fact that may prevent my circuit from doing exactly what I want it to do. Let me say: impossible. The crow epistemology and a deadline get in the way. (The deadline isn't fundamental in this context.)

But I have to get a job done. I make a first stab at the problem: I conceive a proto-induction, then I test it with signals to see that it does what I want. From this I find any problems that prevent my design from working--there are always problems--and then I refine the design. Over and over and over again. I finally arrive at a finite series of tests, representative of an infinite number of signals which could exercise my circuit. Done properly, these tests are complete and general enough to guarantee the circuit works for all the things I want it to do -- and no more. (This is like the "scope" of an induction that Peikoff/Harriman talk about in their book.)

Now, what I do is a hell of a lot easier than inducing a scientific theory. I will state categorically, as a practical matter and a matter of principle: anyone forming a new scientific theory must conceive of it from some incomplete subset of the facts, and then go back to validate it by some means or other to determine if their theory corresponds to reality. There is just no way they can be careful and meticulous enough to make sure their theory is correct, right off the bat. To my thinking, this points to where the solution of the problem of induction must lie: some method of validation. Not positivist claptrap, but objective validation.

Practically, theories up to this epoch in time get validated by little more than the sheer weight of evidence showing they predict X, Y and Z and don't contradict other known facts. That doesn't mean empirical evidence is the solution to the problem of induction; it just means that this is what's been happening in science for a very long time in the absence of anything better. It doesn't answer the central question of the problem of induction-- it just is what people do in the absence of a solution to the problem of induction.

Why Peikoff/Harriman formulated their own solution in terms of an omniscient method (according to my assessment) is a subject in itself. Many reasons possible that I won't enumerate here, and I'm not questioning anyone's honesty.

I have my own notions of what the real solution is, which I won't go into beyond saying (in crudely simple terms): I think you have to generalize the particulars from which you form any induction. That is, you have to define a finite number of particulars so that they are representative of general classes of things that are infinite in number, and then your induction will be general. (Now don't badger me about the validity of the concept "infinite"...) That may be too sketchy to convey what I mean, but it relates directly to that example of electrical design that I just gave.

Doesn't matter for this debate. In my judgment, the Peikoff/Harriman theory as presented is wrong because it demands omniscience. Period.

Consider that it didn't even address the most important application for a solution to the problem of induction: the theory of quantum mechanics. I mean, there has never been a theory more contentiously debated in the history of science. (Rightly so.) If there was one single application that had to be addressed in the book it was the quantum theory. If there was one theory people would like to see proved or disproved by a solution to the problem of induction, it is the quantum theory. To leave that out of a book purporting to solve the problem of scientific induction is like leaving out the verdict in a murder trial, while discussing every other form of minutae.

(The reasoning for the quantum theory is not so difficult to sum up, by the way, but I'll leave that for another discussion.)

Not that Harriman's book doesn't have value in presenting the method of induction in the context of the history of science, but it simply goes too far in asserting a solution to the problem of induction. If the historians have their debate and correct any errors in the history, and if the thesis was removed that the problem of induction was solved, the book would be fine for any class on induction for scientists.

I have no axe to grind with Peikoff or Harriman beyond my disagreement with their thesis. My issue is only with the objective truth of things. That's what I think all Objectivists should stay focused on -- let the objective facts (ie, those out there in reality) be their primary focus -- ie, the science, philosophy and history -- rather than the personality disputes, and let reason be the arbiter of the factual disputes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That One Thing

Reading this article in the New Yorker about the nature of procrastination ("What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?"), I'm reminded of a story of a psychologist and a severely depressed patient who couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed. The doctor finally convinced the patient he could do exactly one small thing, but had to do no more: swing his foot over the edge of the bed. Once accomplished, things seemed a little more possible to the patient. The doctor got him to swing the second leg over the edge of the bed. Hey, things are looking up. In fact, the patient was now so optimistic about life he was able to be convinced to *sit* up. Each step was a little easier, and in 5 minutes he was walking down the hall.

For coping with unpleasant things we have to do and which we procrastinate about, break it down to it's simplest elements. For me, I hate paying bills. Hate. But I have it so well organized I can do it quickly -- I have a spreadsheet of accounts, weblinks, phone numbers, etc. So my simplest possible task is simply to open Excel. Just Excel. No files. That's way too much to handle as I approach this personal hell. I consciously commit to no more than opening Excel. And mean it.

But it's rare when, after seeing Excel spring to life that I can't do the next excruciating task -- open up my spreadsheet. And now, hell, I'm looking at it. There it is. What the hell. Let's at least look at what the most urgent bill is. Crap. It's the gas bill. I'm going to freeze when they shut off my heat. Better pay that one... All done. That wasn't so hard, was it? Massive feeling of accomplishment. Heck, the power bill is really easy to pay ... three clicks and I'm done. Two down. Wow. Do I really want to do another? Yes, I might have the energy for it. What the hell. I'll do three and feel really good about myself. Yes. So why not do that credit card?

And so it goes. I apply the same principle to anything unpleasant, but necessary, that I find myself procrastinating about. I ask myself what the one simplest possible thing I can do is, and most importantly, I commit mentally to saying I have the option of doing no more. (And sometimes I don't -- because that's how I prove it to myself.) But usually, I do more.

I hate to dilute this, but another thing for dealing with procrastination is that less important things *never* get done unless you allocate *some* time to them each day. 10%, let's say, for low priorities. So by imposing the 10% rule, you make them important enough to do. Learned that one from an old boss, and it works.

A friend remarked: "wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to play the thought games we do, in order to do the things we don't want to do."

My reply:

I wonder if the thought games are all part of the crow epistemology (the number of units we can hold in our direct awareness at one time, around 5  to 8), and a necessary part of our psychology.  The more overwhelming an unpleasant task feels, the less we want to do it.  I notice that mentally, when the number of steps to an average task goes much beyond 6 or 7, it transitions from being achievable to unachievable.  But the more unpleasant it is, the lower that number.  The more fun it is, the higher the number.  When a task is  fun, we tend to stay focused on just the immediate-- so we never get overwhelmed by too many things, even when there are too many things.  Less fun tasks, we tend to start fixating on the enormity before us. ALL the things that have to be done to complete the unpleasantness.  "Enormity"  seems related seems closely related to having more than a half-dozen unpleasant things to do.

A related anecdote:  I've noticed that undefinable mild depression or anxiety is also related to the *number* of things bothering us.  The same crow epistemology.  So I have a simple rule -- when I realize that I'm feeling down or uneasy for some undefined reason, I stop and make a list of all the things big and small that are bothering me.  All. (That's very important.)  Usually, I find it's a number over 6 or 7 when I have that undefinable un-ease. Most important, though, is that I make a physical list that I can hold in my hand and look at.  Wow...  that's a long list.  No wonder I feel like crap.  Just knowing it's a big list helps a lot.

But often, I realize that out of the (say) 12 or 15 things on my list, most are trivial (often related to procrastination) and only one or 2 are really important.  Again, I feel a lot better.  I know what's bothering me, or I know that what was bothering me was that I simply hadn't identified what was bothering me.  I had overloaded my crow.  Then I realize that the solution to my problem is manageable. Better yet.  That motivates me (and guides me) to make a focused effort to attack the things I need to.  Sometimes it's the one important thing, first, but sometimes it's all the little things first, to get a sense of accomplishment, and to get the number of things down below 6 or 7, because then the big things seem more manageable. 

By the way, I've tested this strategy on other people.  It works for them, too.  My sister once was getting extremely anxious about a zillion things -- school, work, boyfriend, etc.  So I told her to make a list.  She did that and -- crap.  No wonder she was feeling bad.  But it all looked manageable while staring at that list.
A little oversimplification, but not that much.