THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 575 June 15 - 21, 2009
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June 15, 2009
We continue to hear news of unrest in Iran, but it's becoming pretty clear that there's no great uprising in Iran. The mullahs retain power and the Revolutionary Guard still has control. Iran's population decline continues, but they have money and guns and centrifuges and a lot more resources than North Korea. Oriental Despotisms tend to be eternal until pushed aside by some outside force. They seldom fall to internal dissent. Arthur Koestler believed that a sufficient condition for the fall of totalitarian states was the free exchange of ideas within the state. It doesn't look as if that is the case. It certainly helps to have complete control of the flow of information, but that is becoming increasingly difficult with today's technologies. Koestler's dictum may have been correct when he made it. The free flow of information may have been enough at one time: but bureaucracies -- structures for the continuation of control organizations for the good of the organization -- evolve and change and learn how to deal with new threats. That may have happened here.
Freedom is never free, and is always the enemy of structured bureaucracies. Free people are not equal and equal people are not free. Equality can be a weapon in the hands of the bureaucracy. All one needs is to insist on equality of outcomes.
In logic, a false statement implies the universe class. In human affairs, authority to accomplish the impossible implies absolute power. I just thought of that proposition, but it seems apt.
Niven and I went up the hill today. The dog is flat, I'm pretty tired, and we know how to open the next book. It's a good story with lots of room for action as we introduce characters and viewpoints. It's going to work.
I missed a couple of them myself, which was a bit surprising.
And here is something very serious to worry about:
It appears inevitable.
And have a look at flash cookies over in mail; if you don't know about these, you should.
I have, I fear, not made myself clear.
It's clear that living in California, where public employee unions pretty well govern the state and act like thugs, has caused me to to make generalizations that I don't believe and never meant. For that I will apologize. For teh record: I certainly do not believe that there ought be no public servants. I do believe that we have far too many of them in California, and that NASA certainly had far too many during the many years I dealt with NASA.
And of course Mrs. Pournelle was a teacher of last resort in the LA County juvenile justice system for many years, and is now retired.
In every bureaucracy there are those who try to accomplish the goals the organization was created to accomplish. In many cases those are necessary -- yeah, admirable -- goals. The Civil Service Commission offered me GS-13 to manage operations research for the Army's aviation program -- this was in 1972 -- and I very nearly took that. And of course there are many people in NASA who have accomplished great things.
Some tasks must be done by government. Some are better done as contract services. These are decisions made by legislatures and are part of the political process. In general my view is that government is far too large, and consumes far too much of the output of the United States, but I would never argue that it's all needless, nor do I think I know what the exact balance between public and private sector ought to be. I believe there ought to be public schools, and I have high regard for the teachers who really try to keep civilization going. I also know that more and more the system favors everyone but the best teachers. Merit pay for excellent work is denounced and incompetent teachers are defended by the teachers unions; this is not good for education. But there are also those who labor hard at what often seems to be a hopeless task. Civilization needs such people.
On the other hand: we have, in California, both civil service provisions and public employee unions. The result has been a public disaster that can't be undone. I suspect this is not the only place where that has happened.
The official story is that we have to pay civil service people enough in both pay and benefits to attract them away from private enterprise which presumably is eager to hire them. While this may well be true for some state and city employees, most people don't believe it to be true of all or even most of them. In a collapsing economy one suspects that some are redundant and others overpaid. Yet the rhetoric of their union representatives is increasingly strident. The state is broke, but no one must be paid less. Companies may lay people off but never shall the state. Salaries are cut in the rest of the world, but not in state offices. Pensions may never be reduced, there can never be premiums or copayments for health insurance (some public employee contracts actually provide what amounts to unlimited health insurance at no cost whatever). There must be rises in taxes because there cannot be cuts in payments. And that, I fear, is what we in California hear every hour of every day. That may have infected my brain.
So: my apologies to those who do the genuine work of keeping civilization together. We certainly need driver's licenses, enforcement of compulsory rabies shots for dogs, fire protection, law enforcement, and so forth; and if I have seemed to imply that we don't, my apologies.
Having said that, I'll repeat: I think we need government, but I also think we have more of it than we need. The old joke is that we should rejoice because we don't get all the government we pay for. And the Iron Law of Bureaucracy always prevails -- including, I would wager, even in the offices where the writer of that letter works.
Incidentally, a 3% COA adjustment isn't going to amount to much when the deficits are running to trillions.
From another conference:
I know even less about Iran. I don't speak Farsi, and few Iranians outside Tehran speak English. Interestingly, many Iranian experts do not speak Farsi, so how they manage to find out what is going on in the villages and anyplace outside downtown Tehran is a bit of a mystery to me. My own view was that the Shah with his White Revolution was probably the best path Iran had, but that's based largely on Iranian friends who were supporters of the Shah and spent most of their lives in exile here.
I also suspect that Western cultural weapons of mass destruction will have their effects on Iran whatever the mullahs desire.
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June 16, 2009
A commentator I trust recently said that Iran's fertility rate is below the replacement value. That may not be the case. The official rate gives a stable population. Iran formerly had a rapidly growing population fertility rate, but undertook measures to reduce that. It is now apparently somewhere between 2 and 3. A fertility rate of 2.2 gives a more or less stable population.
My morning papers show enormous crowds in Tehran apparently protesting the election. Since the four candidates for the election were all that the mullahs allowed out of ten times that number, there's hardly any danger to the regime, and the "recount" is not likely to go anywhere.
I would be ecstatic if there were a burning desire for freedom in the Iranian people, but I find it unlikely that much will come of all this. I still have some confidence in the western cultural weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps I insufficiently appreciate the impact of the Internet including twitter and texting and the rest of it to impact this regime. I hope I'm wrong, but the example of Cuba is not encouraging.
June 17, 2009
Alex experimented with my IBM ThinkPad (Windows XP), and found that Windows OneCare is blocking it from accessing the workgroup. If the OneCare Firewall is turned off, the network is working just fine. Since that laptop does go outside Chaos Manor I am leaving things this way; I'll turn off the firewall when I need to communicate with the ThinkPad. I've looked at all the settings, and I can't find anything wrong with the settings.
In theory there is a Windows OneCare forum, but in practice I don't seem to be able to use it. I think I have to do some registration stuff, and my experience with such things hasn't been favorable enough to tempt me. To the best I can tell, the only problem I have with net connectivity with the IBM ThinkPad is the Firewall in OneCare. If I disable that firewall, I have no problems at all.
For reasons I don't understand, OneCare thinks I am in a public place. In fact I am connected by Ethernet and through a router, but I can't find out how to tell the silly firewall and OneCare that I am at "home or work". I suppose I can continue to fool with it, but I've wasted enough time. I understand that OneCare is going away, and this may be part of the problem. I guess I just get to live with this.
I suppose it is time to investigate new security programs. I used to be a fan of Norton, but over time Symantec loaded it with so many "features" that it became unusable. For a while I tried NOD 32 on Leo Laporte's recommendation, but it was annoying and kept badgering me. This was some time ago and they may well have improved things. But about then Microsoft came out with their OneCare and I adopted it, and it has been quite satisfactory for some time. I know that many seem to be annoyed with OneCare, but I had no problems until recently.
Microsoft was supposed to deliver Morro in "June" but what I see mostly now is that they'll have a beta Real Soon Now. And wait for Windows 7. Until then I'll turn off the firewall when I'm home behind the router, and let it block stuff when I'm not.
One headline item on the front page of the Money & Investing section of today's Wall Street is "Black Swan Trader Bets Reputation on Inflation." You've heard about the Black Swan trader and the concept and the book both here and in the column. It's worth your time to read this article.
The news from Iran continues to be interesting but a bit murky. The Revolutionary Guard is trying to keep control. It is an interesting test of the power of communications in the modern world. We had something similar in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but it's not clear what the final outcome of that will be -- and Ukraine is not Iran,
I am quite interested in this, but I can't pretend to any expertise or private sources.
June 18, 2009
The Obama financial reform proposal is terrifying. Instead of anti-trust provisions to prevent companies from becoming too big to fail, it looks to me as if it will prop up any company that becomes too big to fail. Perhaps I misunderstand? It's early days yet.
Karl Marx predicted that capitalism held the seeds of its own destruction, and that the end of capitalism would be that it would devour itself, concentrating more and more wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands until it would collapse. David McCord Wright, my favorite economist, thought that anti-trust had saved the United States from this fate; that Marx was fundamentally right. If you follow the history of the book distribution industry over past few years -- from over 400 companies to under five now (some would say about 1 1/2 now) -- you will see the results of cut throat competition, hostile takeovers, and an industry that self-destructs in greed.
Capitalism requires creative destruction: liquidation of failed enterprises so that their resources can be allocated to more productive enterprises. For a long time a major socialist criticism of capitalism was the waste of resources: planning would keep them from being misallocated in the first place. I believed that as an undergraduate. It just seemed to make sense that there was a more rational way to allocate resources than to have forty brands of laundry soap each spending great sums on advertising. Couldn't that money be spent in a more productive way? So I thought, and there is always the temptation to think that way.
Experience and history teach us differently. Central planning doesn't work. The Soviet system and the American Department of Education are pretty good examples of what happens when you try it. There are plenty of theoretical works that are said to prove this. They mostly rely on information theories, and periodically someone will show that as technology improves communication capability central planning becomes more efficient and possible.
The new Obama plan appears to centralize decisions and restrict entry into the competitive markets through increase costs of compliance with regulation. (Sarbanes-Oxley does that pretty efficiently now.)
Now there is no questioning that something went terribly wrong in the real estate market. Fannie May and Freddie Mac, in an attempt to greatly increase the number of home owners, injected a lot of easy money into the housing market. When more money enters a market, prices rise. Someone invented new ways to leverage the rising prices into new financial products which were sold with great commissions to those who sold them. More people bought houses. Soon people were buying houses with financial products that ensured that their debts would grow, not shrink, as they made their house payments. So long as housing prices rose -- so long as the bubble continued -- they could refinance their way out of the bucket they put themselves into. Others say their "equity" rise with the bubble and borrowed money against the new "value" of their house. New financial products were invented and old conservative thrifts found that they couldn't compete for savings unless they got into the new loans and financial products and --
The end was foreseeable and foreseen.
Obama's new financial reform system will put all that under federal regulation. My initial reaction to the proposal is that once again the administration doesn't want to let a crisis go to waste: there are many reasons to change the regulatory system so that the crazy bubbles don't happen, but surely we don't need a complete change in everything? But initial reactions aren't important because the Congress hasn't got into the act yet. What comes out isn't likely to look much like what went in. I have no idea of what will emerge.
The one thing I'm fairly sure of is that big lobby efforts will have their effect, and when all this is done there will be more central planning and more federal power, and the result is not likely to be good for small business, startups, and the engines of creativity. We'll have to see what comes out of the Congressional Committees. I doubt it will be pretty, and it will almost certainly be more favorable to institutions too big to fail than to new entrants into the market place.
That was during the height of the Cold War. Brecht had been a Stalinist for a long time; but somehow he was able to write this toward the end of his life. He was Minister of Culture for East Germany.
The rumors from Iran continue. It's hard to sort out truth from hopefulness. Remember that the neocons were certain that the Iraqi people would welcome the US Army and Chalabi as liberators. Intelligence evaluations are difficult. I know from experience. And they require some reliable sources: some fixed information that is not opinion, so that you can gauge other information's reliability and probability. I have none of that. I am not sure who does.
June 19, 2009
There is mail on the Iraq situation, and some discussion of evolution and science and consensus in another letter, which asks if MAC Users are Satanists....
I got a late start today. Sleepless night.
June 20, 2009
The Iranian situation continues to be murky. We know that a large number of people are protesting in Tehran, and that many of them are aware that the world is watching, and know English and other foreign languages. We know that the election results as announced seem a bit odd: the numbers reported don't match the random numbers (in the last digit) that we'd expect from an actual election with reports precinct by precinct, and there was scarcely enough time for the ballots actually to be counted before the results were reported. (Of course that has happened in the US; recall that Dewey whipped Truman?)
We also know that the election results aren't contrary to many of the (not very good) polls taken in the countryside (as opposed to polls taken in Tehran mostly in English), and that the opposition candidate isn't very attractive (those who were were forbidden to run).
There's another question not many are considering. Peggy Noonan in today's Wall Street Journal asks which side we ought to be on, and answers it quickly: of course the American people will be on the side of the dissenters.
Perhaps so, but why is that automatic? Do we automatically assume that we ought to support demonstrating mobs who rage through the streets of the capital city? It isn't as if that hasn't happened before in Iran. There were the Mossadech riots in which mobs chanted Death or Mossadech on one day, then Death or the Shah on another; and if you look closely at the newsreel photographs, you'll see that many of the demonstrators were in both mobs. They were paid: the CIA and the KGB were hiring from the same pool. It is the received wisdom in American academic institutions that the CIA put the Shah in power, and this is the beginning of Iran's problems. Most of those who believe this aren't aware that Iran was occupied by the USSR after WW II and that without Truman's ultimatum would have remained so; Truman threatened what amounted to nuclear war to get Stalin to withdraw his occupation forces.
Iran's history is complex, and neither Mossadech nor the Shah were liberal democrats; and given Iran's oil, its warm water ports on the sea, and the general strategic importance of that area of the world, it wasn't in the cards that Iran could be a neutral liberal democracy even if that is what its population wanted -- and there's even less evidence that anyone save a few Western educated Persian wanted any such thing to begin with. It is pretty clear that US national interests were not well served by Soviet domination of Iran, and that Soviet possession of Iran might well have been a major factor in prolonging the Cold War. It's also doubtful that Iran would be better off had Mossadech taken control; he was more indebted to the USSR (which was on his borders after all) than ever the Shah was to the US. Recall what happened to Czechoslovakia after WWII.
The Shah ruled for years, and he wasn't impervious to Western ideas -- indeed, his liberalization of the schools, his liberation of women, and in general his enlightened practices were the chief objects of the scorn of the mullahs. Yes, his regime was corrupt. So is the present Iranian regime. I doubt there has ever been a corruption-free government in Persia since Cyrus the Great, and I have my doubts about him.
Then came the fall of the Shah. Jimmy Carter could have kept him in power, but the American intelligentsia favored the street mob. Carter went with the intelligentsia. That didn't do Carter any good: the mob conquered the US Embassy and took hostages, and the humiliation went far toward ending Carter's hopes for reelection. (Recall that Carter was elected overwhelmingly in part because of the humiliation of Watergate.) One can, I suppose, argue that Iran is better off without the Shah, but that is by no means a settled debate. The Shah's White Revolution was creating a real middle class in Iran, and his balancing act of Westernization despite the opposition of the mullahs seemed to be working pretty well. I don't mean to open a debate here: my point is that we deferred to the Tehran mob in Jimmy Carter's time, and we are certainly not pleased with the results; and it's not at all clear that Iran is the better for our having done that.
We know that the Tehran demonstrators claim the election was rigged and that their man won. We don't know a lot more.
We also know that Western cultural weapons of mass destruction are working their way through Iranian society. We know that many young Iranians (at least English speaking young Iranians in Tehran) are unhappy with the subjugation of women and the radical changes to the education system since the fall of the Shah.
We don't know what a majority of the Iranian people want -- but since when have conservatives been in favor of plebiscitary democracy to begin with? I suppose my sentiments are with the courageous demonstrators, but I don't think the choice is quite as obvious as Peggy Noonan believes it is.
There is a large grab bag of interesting mail today.
June 21, 2009
I found myself involved in a discussion the other night. It sort of got out of hand, largely I suspect because I no longer hear my own voice and thus don't know how loud I talk, and many people assume I am shouting at them. In this case I was largely among friends, and the poor visiting chap didn't understand while, alas, my friends didn't step on my foot or otherwise remind me that I can be very loud. The result was that it wasn't a very useful discussion.
The point had to do with the future: if in future we have space solar power and fairly low cost access to space will there be any reason to fear global warming and pollution? It seems to me obvious that there will not. The other view is that space solar power will drive the temperature of the Earth up even faster since it is bringing sunlight that wouldn't have hit the Earth.
The answer to this, of course, is that if we have space solar power to generate kilowatts, we won't need to burn coal and oil and natural gas to get those kilowatts. Or even run nuclear power plants. Power generation from coal and oil will never be more than about 60% efficient. Even were it 75%, it would mean that 25% of the heat produced goes into the atmosphere (or into cooling ponds or whatever) without being useful at all; whereas with space solar power, about 90% of the power beamed down is useful power, and all the power wasted in converting sunlight to microwaves never enters the atmosphere at all. The heating effect on the Earth is therefore smaller, and there is no CO2 generated at all. It thus seems unlikely that a society that has cheap energy from space solar power will be overly polluted or warming itself to death. I didn't really get that point made because of topic drift, but it's worth putting on the record.
As I have been saying since the 1970's, cheap energy plus human ingenuity makes for a better world. I said that in the old A Step Farther Out, in Survival with Style, and I'll be saying it again with better examples in some future works.
The news from Iran continued to be mixed. I have considerable concern for the demonstrators. We can wish them all well. Well wishing doesn't always work, of course. I have no idea what will happen, but I doubt that the mullahs will give up power easily.
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