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Monday, January 12, 2009

We're headed for home this morning, so there probably won't be much here until tonight.

There was a lot of important mail over the weekend on both Saturday and Sunday. Be sure to have a look.

================

Commenting on my observations on Atlas Shrugged:

Ayn Rand was not an anarchist, or someone who believed in no government at all.

Her views on government can be found here:

http://www.ccsindia.org/ccsindia/lss/2nature_of_govt.pdf 

The discussion on business regulations should not be an all-or-nothing proposition. To state that a 600-lb. deep ocean diving suit is inappropriate garb for a successful ballet dancer is not the same thing as saying that she should dance naked. At present, the regulatory load on American businesses is a lot closer to the former than the latter.

Tom Brosz

I suspect I know more about the views held by Miss Rand than most. I even met her once. What she never could explain is the basis for law. No one else can, really, either; as Burnham points out in The Machiavellians, a book well worth the time to seek out and read, there is no more compelling reason to assume that a government selected by 50% plus one of the male, or male and female, population is legitimate than to assume legitimacy for a monarchy ("Your fathers swore to my father, and you to me") or a social class (rule of the best). Aristotle noted many forms of government, some good, some bad, and nearly all changing one to another, republics becoming democracies which quickly degenerated into the many plundering the productive leading to anarchy leading to some form of tyranny, which if they were lucky would become monarchy, which would --- but you get the notion. John Stewart Mill said that "Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one." He did not contemplate a state -- such as the England he lived in -- preferring "diversity" to liberty, and abandoning liberty when they had achieved the maturity necessary for a liberal republic. It never seems to have occurred to him that nations could, in H Beam Piper's phrase, from Space Vikings, decivilize. I suspect that if he lived today he would reexamine his assumptions.

A stable and reasonably rational government is a gift from God or from the gods, and fortunate are the people who have such a gift. Of course they will one day spurn it. One Greek republic (a city state) required anyone proposing a change to the constitution to do so with a noose around his neck; if the proposal was rejected, the winning faction pulled hard on the rope. Whether this ever happened isn't known, but the people of the city assured Aristotle's graduate students (who were investigating the constitutions of all the known city states) that the provision of their law was true, and they thanked the gods for it.

We are busily destroying the basis for our consensus of right and wrong in favor of some kind of pluralism and diversity. Not in favor of rational discussion; indeed, that is suppressed in the name of preventing hate speech.

 Of course the federal structure of the nation was intended to accomplish something like diversity while preserving the union: by leaving as much as possible to the states, the largest possible numbers would live under governments they had assented to. In addition, by leaving most economic matters to the states, there would be competition: competition to have lower death taxes thus luring the wealthy to move there before they died. Competition to have lower sales and business taxes to lure the enterprising to come live in the state. (California seems to be going in the opposite direction, trying hard to see how many of the productive it can drive out of the state, and it's doing very well at it.) Alas the temptation to meddle in other people's affairs has never abated.

There was a time when states had residency requirements. You had to live in California for a year to be eligible for any kind of state welfare. New York, which gave welfare support to anyone who had been in the state for an hour, sued, and Lo! the Supreme Court held that residency requirements were unconstitutional. There followed == well, it's pretty obvious what followed. The courts did what Congress could not do. Now courts and Congress work together to destroy the Judeo-Christian basis of society in favor of The Drama of Atheist Humanism. (There's a very good book by that name, and it's worth finding, as is The Pursuit of the Millennium; read together they give an interesting picture.)

Of course once you admit that the Federal Government has power over some area of human endeavor, sooner or later it will create a bureaucracy to assert that power, and Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will take over, assuring that the area of endeavor will be choked by rules, all well meant. Congress Shall Make No Law becomes something less than an absolute restriction, and Congress hands out doles and earmarked funds but only if the states adopt whatever it is Congress thinks will be best for everyone, and meanwhile the courts hold that window washers are engaged in interstate commerce because they might be washing windows for an office suite that has someone working in it who is importing goods from another state, and suddenly federal minimum wage laws, are valid, and soon Congress will be able to say that a union goon can intimidate you into signing a card so they don't have to have a secret ballot election to make you join the union to keep your job. Welcome to freedom tempered by good intentions.

But make no mistake about it. To secure real rights, governments are necessary. We can agree on that without deciding how to choose a government. Both Heaven and Hell are rumored to be absolute monarchies with a hierarchy of officials...

If men were angels, would government be needed? Apparently even then: Lucifer didn't demand that everyone worship him, only that their obeisance to God be directed through him. The Framers wisely left matters of religion to the states. We moderns in our infinite wisdom have seen fit to change that. Precisely what we will replace it with as a means of securing the loyalties of the citizens has yet to be seen: I haven't seen many willing to fight and die for diversity, but perhaps it will be so in future.

Enough. It's late, I have to get to bed so I can get up in the morning. We pack up and leave before Noon lest we be trapped in traffic coming home. Forgive my late night rambles. I too understand the temptations of that small party who clustered around John Galt. I also understand Miss Rand's joy in creating a world in which the Earth's most powerful and competent men rush to her aid when she is in need, despite large incentives for them not to do that. And I never did understand the moral and ethical position of Ragnar the Pirate. He seems to have been acting benevolently because he wanted to, but what he was doing wasn't charity, and he hated Robin Hood; why would he want to act benevolently, and where did he get his notions of benevolence in the first place? Ragnar was a great righter of wrongs as he saw them, but why one would do that while believing in Rand's philosophy isn't clear, and why his crew would remain fanatically loyal to him as he risked their lives so that he could right wrongs is even less so; but then personal relationships, particularly between unequals, is always a problem for Rand. She understood -- or at least admired -- leaders a lot more than she understood followers, for whom she always had a certain disdain.

If I seem hostile to Miss Rand, I am not. My mother was very much an individualist and encouraged me to be such. Rand was a prodigiously intelligent and complex woman, with many views worth study and respect. That she could never reconcile the gap between knowing what is and knowing what ought to be (and how to prove you know what ought to be) is not astonishing : no one else has ever done so without resorting to some form of revelation. Her admiration for St. Thomas Aquinas was real and her reasons for that admiration are worth knowing.

I didn't much like her the time I met her, but perhaps we were both having a bad day. We parted on friendly enough terms. I never met her husband (they were married for some fifty years), who must have been a remarkable man in his own right. I will say that I doubt anyone who ever met her, no matter how briefly, ever forgot the experience.

There was one really galling paragraph in Atlas Shrugged: the judge who has retreated to Galt's hideaway at one point says that he has written a book on law that would save the Earth, but he isn't going to publish it. I will leave it as an exercise for the readers to discern why this so upset me when I read it that it pretty well spoiled the rest of the novel. Miss Rand did not want to comment on that paragraph, which she remembered as soon as I brought it up; I have often wondered if it bothered her as much as it disturbed me. I confess I did not dare ask her why Ragnar the pirate would be so eager to rush to her rescue; but then having met her, I didn't need to ask.

And enough. It really is time for bed.

==========================

0900 San Diego:

The President is having a press conference.  He is worried about protectionism.

The only way the US can afford not to have protectionism is to make the schools work again. That will require doing something about teachers unions which exist to protect incompetent teachers at the expense of the students. It will require enforcement of civility and discipline in the classrooms so that those who can be motivated to learn are not at the mercy of the barbarians who despise learning and those who want to learn. It will  require us to get the lawyers out of the school system and go back to real authority and civility. It will require giving more control of the schools to those with experience in teaching, and taking much of the gatekeeper function from education professors who know lots of theory and never taught anyone except college students.  It will require understanding that this is not Lake Wobegon and no matter how hard  you try, no matter how much you want it to happen, half the children will not become proficient in algebra. Half the children will not and should not go to college, and get nothing from a university prep high school education -- and the attempt to see that every child gets a world class university prep education is a great way to insure that no child gets a world class university prep education.

If we are going to insist on national control of the schools, and state control of what is left, leaving almost no control to the locals; if we are going to continue to have state finance of local schools thus removing fiscal responsibility from local control; if we don't put in place mechanisms that give at least a small chance of reforming the schools so that they work: then we will need heavy protective tariffs to allow some recovery and rebuilding of vital industries. We have exported many jobs overseas, making our economy depend on transportation costs which we can't control.

Enough. The press conference ended and on CNN the first thing we heard was a whiny voice complaining in the usual manner of the American elites. I thought it was an interesting press conference, but it was utterly ruined by the entirely predictable whiny voice. The President wishes the incoming President well. We have a high drama, the replacement of a chief of state without turmoil, with hopes for tranquility and a bit of unity; and the first thing to follow is that whiny voice shouting about lies and Katrina. Perhaps it's what we deserve.

We sow the wind.

==============

Home safe. I have a reader who believes you ought to be informed that The Drama of Atheist Humanism was written in 1943 by a Jesuit. I suppose I should say also that The Pursuit of the Millennium was written by Norm Cohn, who  was not a Jesuit (he was an academic from a mixed Catholic-Jewish family). It was not by accident that I mention the two books together. There may be better histories of the attempts to find the final answers to questions of morality, but I know of none which give a better grounding on the major aspects of the subject in fairly short books.

Ayn Rand intended to show there was an "objective" foundation to morality, and that she had found it; that proper study would take ethics and morals from being subjective beliefs to an objective science. Similar claims have been made by advocates of natural law. On the other side of the picture is Revelation. Alas, different belief systems lead to different choices of what is good.

C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man argued that oddly enough there was more agreement on what was moral and ethical than on the validity of the sources of that knowledge. More another time. Anyway we are back home, and Sable wants us to take her out.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2008   

Friday the Thirteenth falls on Tuesday this month.

NASA has spotted a La Nina condition, which indicates a dry winter for Southern California and a lot of water for the Pacific Northwest. This is sheer sexism, and we hope Congress will pass laws to remedy the situation.

The LA District Attorney has won a $5 million civil judgment against a street gang, which presumably means that he can confiscate property including businesses owned by -- well, that part isn't clear. The gang has no legal existence. One presumes that the property of gang members is involved; will it be sufficient to prove that the property owner is a gang member in order to seize his property? This may all be a good idea, but I recall that at one time liberals (and some others) were concerned about "guilt by association" and the Smith Act. The devil is in the details here. Perhaps Prokeet is awakening. And yes, all this does have something to do with the cultural wars. We used to have The Melting Pot as a model. Now it is Diversity. But then we used to leave most of that to the states and to local communities; the Melting Pot wasn't a national policy, it was a result.

================

I have a number of readers who recommend you have a look at

http://www.daybydaycartoon.com/2009/01/11/

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Wednesday,  January 14, 2009

I don't think they put as many hours in the day as they used to. I got up, had breakfast, read some of the paper, and Roberta and Sable and I went for a walk -- and it's noon, and I've accomplished nothing, and I need to get to work on Mamelukes. Of course I have some obligation to subscribers, so I'll do that first, after which it will be lunch time, and acter lunch it's Mamelukes, so today's mail will have to wait until evening.

Scientific War and History

Those interested in modern warfare might want to read

http://blog.wired.com/defense/
2009/01/how-tech-change.html which is a review of a book I haven't read and probably won't read, although it's possible that the reviewer simply didn't understand it, despite the reviewer's extensive and impressive credentials (and apparent access to the author). As an example, the reviewer says "...it identifies some important distinctions and helps explain things like the failure of Vietnam - Robert MacNamaraís pervasive quantification didnít do much, in the end, to convince the Viet Cong that they were facing defeat."

This tells me that the reviewer hasn't a clue as to what happened in Viet Nam, or even why we were there. Viet Nam was a campaign of attrition in the Cold War. The United State decided early on that the proper strategy for the Cold War was containment: that if the USSR were left to stew in its own juices and not allowed to expand, so that war could not feed war, the corruption and mismanagement that inevitably accompanied a command economy would bring about collapse, while our free enterprise economy would bring about economic growth. The essence of containment was that the enemy had to be contained. The USSR already had North Viet Nam, obtained when the French withdrew from their protectorate and Viet Nam (an artificial entity in the first place) was partitioned. Kennedy and then Johnson decided that Containment was the proper strategy, and committed the US to the defense of the South. That wasn't done well, but it was done, and after the Viet Cong committed suicide in the Tet Offensive the war became one of attrition against the North.

By 1972 the war was won. In Spring of 1972 the North sent 150,000 men, all equipped with imported modern weapons including tanks and trucks, into the south in a straight up invasion without any pretense that this was any kind of "insurgency". Colonel Harry Summers put it this way:

"On 29 March 1972 North Vietnam launched what was to become known as the Eastertide Offensive. Leaving two divisions in Laos and one as a strategic reserve, North Vietnam committed some 12 divisions -- a total of about 150,000 men -- to the attack on South Vietnam. Supported by tanks, heavy artillery, and mobile antiaircraft units, they had some initial success. But they had severely miscalculated both the fighting ability of the South Vietnamese Army and the ability of the United States to react... By July 1972 the North Vietnamese had reverted to the tactical defensive."

North Viet Nam took about 100,000 casualties in 1972. The total number of US killed in that year was 641. The Second Viet Nam War had been won decisively.

In 1975 the Third Viet Nam War began, and this time the US did not provide support. The USSR had rebuilt the army destroyed in 1972 and presented the North with a brand new modern armored army, while the United States Congress voted to support the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam with 20 cartridges and two hand grenades per man. Viet Nam accordingly fell; but to characterize this as saying that MacNamara had not convinced the Viet Cong that they were facing defeat is at best absurd. By 1975 the Viet Cong no longer existed. The only insurgency in South Viet Nam was North Viet Nam regulars infiltrated into the South who were able to take advantage of the Sanctuary Areas of Laos, Cambodia, and the DMZ; and the only reason North Viet Nam won in 1975 was that the Congress of the United States, inspired by Watergate, would not support our ally; and the reasons North Viet Nam invaded were (1) they had a new army equipped by their allies, and (2) they had good reason to believe that the United States would not respond in 1975 as we responded in 1972.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Viet Nam experience, but in my judgment anyone who sums up that war with statements like  "...it identifies some important distinctions and helps explain things like the failure of Vietnam - Robert MacNamaraís pervasive quantification didnít do much, in the end, to convince the Viet Cong that they were facing defeat," probably doesn't have a lot to teach us.

===========================

On Bailouts and Mortgages

The bailouts continue, or at least the distribution of money. Barrack Obama is now making vague threats against the Democrats if they don't quickly vote to give him $350 billion, the other half of the mysterious bailout package that was supposed to end our problems. I haven't been told where most of the first half went, and there seems to be little information on what Obama will do with the second half, but he assures us it is vitally needed and Right Now.

My original reaction to Paulson's original request for $700 billion to be spent at his discretion and exempting him from any liability was "Why not?" My logic was that the amount was trivial compared to what we were about to lose in the coming crash and depression, and buying up the bad paper that was the source of the collapse probably would not work, but it just might, this being a confidence game anyway. A bold move like that might just might restore some confidence and prevent the coming collapse.

That wasn't what was done, of course. Instead everyone had to line up to wet their beaks, and it became a giant pork barrel. Moreover, they didn't even buy up the toxic paper. I'm not at all sure what they did with the money other than dangle some in front of the auto makers while making them grovel. I am pretty sure that you won't solve the US automobile industry by reducing the executive's salaries and perks, or by putting Congressional Committee Chairs in charge of industry policies.

I am not an economist but I do wonder about something. Apparently the total collapse of the house industry was brought about by some 2 million foreclosures. That is, the mortgage backed security packages had been sliced and diced and sold and resold and resliced and rediced and resold again, but all of that was dependent on people making their payments on time; and when some 2 million people stopped making those payments, the whole thing collapsed.

Now assume that the average payment was $4000 a month. That is $8 billion a month, or $92 billion a year. Now if the US Government had simply taken over the payments -- and thus the ownership -- of the properties, it would cost $100 billion a year counting some administrative costs. We could then have rented those properties for whatever we could get; call that $1000 a month per property or $2000 a month total income, so our total outlay is back to under $80 billion a year. This isn't trivial, but it will take a while for that to add up to $700 billion. Part of the administrative costs I assume in the above would be to set agencies to untangle the witch brews of those mortgage securities so we are dealing with real properties, real renters, real buyers -- real people. We begin to unload those properties which we took over for the payments, with administrators biased toward selling the properties to the people living in them: converting their rent into rent/purchase contracts and letting them build equity (which they lose if they stop making the payments.) There are many devils in the details of this, but it seems to me that if the reason for the collapse of the economy was the utter collapse of the real estate market and the terrible losses investors suffered when the "investment grade AAA rated" mortgage based securities turned out to be CC minus grade at best, then with the US government making the mortgage payments they all become AAA again.

I know there are problems here. Among them, there is no retaliation against the ratings agencies which created this problem in the first place. If any executives deserve to lose all their assets it would be, in my judgment, those who put AAA ratings on bundles of crap thus making chicken salad out of chicken droppings. If they didn't know what they were doing they are incompetent and ought to be turned out; if they did know, they ought to be made to disgorge every nickel they were paid to defraud the investors who bought junk bonds under the delusion that they were high grade investments. Alas, the law names the four ratings agencies and requires investment firms and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to go pay high fees for their ratings, and no I am not making this up: Federal law sees to it that the four big ratings agencies can never have any competition other than each other, and that they will get business if anyone invests any money in anything ratable. The fact that these four agencies are either incompetent or crooked -- I mean, how competent can you be if you rate a package of mortgage secured paper as being as safe an investment as US Treasury bonds when you have not a scintilla of evidence that they are safe (and it soon became manifest to anyone with a brain that they weren't safe) -- the fact that these agencies are either incompetent or crooked doesn't matter: the law sends investors to them and requires that they be paid their fees.

I don't think that handing Obama $350 billion will save the country; but if he were to spend it by making the payments on defaulting mortgages, it would cost a lot less than what they are planning, and who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to sing.

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Thursday,  January 15, 2009

In keeping with my commitment to stop being negative and give the incoming administration a chance ("Can't you at least wait until he's in office before you trash him?") I'm trying to look for something good to say, or at least be able to say I hope Obama succeeds. I'm having trouble doing that. Obama is a bit difficult to read because he seldom makes unambiguous statements, so it's a little like Kremlinology used to be: you had to read intentions from overt actions including who got to stand where on Lenin's Tomb during the Mayday parades. We do have one unambiguous signal: Obama made it very clear that he wants the $350 billion in bailout money, although it is not clear what it will be used for.

I fear it is hard to wish him well and hope it works, because I don't think bailouts will work. As I said way back when, if they had simply handed Paulson the money with a grant of immunity and let him spread it around, the $700 billion he asked for would have been small beer compared to what we lost in the subsequent market crashes, and while it wasn't likely that buying up the "toxic paper" would prevent the market crash, that wouldn't have caused fundamental changes in the economic structure of the US. Buying up bad investment paper and selling it at a loss would have rewarded some people who ought not have been rewarded, but it wouldn't turn the country into a command economy with government ownership of major institutions. Whether that would have worked or not is irrelevant. The bill submitted to the Congress was not what Paulson asked for. It had already been fattened up with pork, but not enough: it was rejected, sent back to be porked up some more, so that what Jimmy Carter called the ravenous wolves (Congressional Committee Chairmen) were happier, and the bill that was eventually passed would clearly do more harm than good. It had no real effect on the market crash, which was what the bill was supposed to alleviate, nor on the coming recession nor on the fading of recession into depression. We haven't yet reached Depression. I can hope that Obama is a lot smarter than I am and knows how to use the $350 billion to stop the economic slide, but I can't see how he'll do it, and he hasn't explained it yet.

I do have a suggestion on how he can spend $100 billion of it this year.

I hope that's not too negative.

We can all wish Obama well, and hope the nation recovers. As to "give them a chance," I don't think we have many alternatives. The Democrats own Washington and the Republicans worked very hard to make Washington more powerful. We have sown the wind, but we can hope that we will not reap the whirlwind. We can hope.

 

 

 

 

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Friday,  January 16, 2009

I am moving on Mamelukes and need to concentrate on that. Mail is piling up, and I'm overdue for a Chaos Manor Reviews mailbag. They just don't seem to be putting as many hours in a day as they used to.

One response to my comments on the Viet Nam War protests that we had no business over there to begin with and Ho Chi Minh deserved a chance, etc. I don't agree, but it's not addressed to anything I said to begin with. My point was that whether or not we had any moral or ethical right to be in Viet Nam, or even to adopt Containment as a Cold War strategy, we did adopt Containment; Containment requires that you contain the enemy; and we did that from 1961 until 1975; and that the Viet Nam War was won, not once but twice, once in the aftermath of Tet when the Viet Cong went out of business and the war became purely an invasion of the south by the north, and a second time in 1972 when the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam with US aid and support, defeated an invasion of 12 divisions and 150,000 men at a cost of 641 US casualties for the year. Neither victory was much celebrated because the US had already been defeated in the minds of much of the US elite, and nothing could be done about that. The 1972 invasion ended with the loss of 100,000 North Vietnamese and all the considerable materiel; the 1975 invasion could have ended the same way had the US responded the same way.

With regard to whether or not we should have been there in the first place: in 1965 there was a very close victory over a communist coup. Whether international communism would have had more resources to devote to Indonesia had those not been absorbed in Viet Nam is not clear, but it does seem likely; and given how close matters came in 1965 in Indonesia, that might have been decisive. The conquest of Indonesia would not have been a trivial victory. Everyone today forgets that a great portion of the US intellectual community thought that eventual communist victory was inevitable. Kissinger once famously compared himself to Metternich. The collapse of the USSR and the Communist International may now seem to have been inevitable, but few believed that before it happened.

It may be that left to itself communism would have collapsed even if the USSR had been able to let war feed war and continue to add to its empire of satellite states; but that is not obvious.

==============

There is a report on distance learning in mail. Those contemplating education should read it.

 

 

 

 

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Saturday,  January 17, 2009

I have taken the day off to work on a Chaos Manor Reviews mailbag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday,  January 18, 2009

I have taken the day off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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