Modern Times

Saturday, December 10, 2016

John Glenn must surely have wondered, as all the astronauts weathered into geezers, how a great nation grew so impoverished in spirit.

Our heroes are old and stooped and wizened, but they are the only giants we have. Today, when we talk about Americans boldly going where no man has gone before, we mean the ladies’ bathroom. Progress.

Mark Steyn



It’s always something. Yesterday at 12:41 PM I stopped getting mail, except that if I sent text messages to myself they would eventually arrive in my mailbox. Messages sent to others got out, some of them, but replies did not come back to me. A check with my SPAM folders revealed that nothing was coming in.

Meanwhile other interruptions continued. I did manage to get in a walk, and that turned out well as I hobbled with my walker down a few blocks, and discovered I was out at the time when the neighbors turned out en masse to walk their kids home from school. When I bought this house in 1968, Studio City was a village, and a 1928 house was not very expensive. It did have the advantage of being near a reasonably good school, but even so, it was not considered an upper middle class district; decidedly not. The postman lived down the street, and my next-door neighbors kept a hair salon cum plant shop, and struggled to maintain their house repairs. A former movie star lived in the house up the hill across the street, but the flats weren’t thought all that fashionable.

Then they started a massive program to bus in kids from downtown districts (the incoming busses always had more kids than they carried away in the afternoons. My kids went to Catholic schools a mile or so away, and the area was safe enough for those old enough to bicycle.

Came Lucifer’s Hammer and we built a swimming pool, which served us well. But over time bussing went out of fashion – why anyone supposed that spending two or more hours a day on a school bus so they could sit next to Studio City kids in grade school would improve the bussed kids’ education is not comprehensible to me – and the local school kept improving while most of the other schools in the monstrous bureaucracy that calls itself the LA Unified School District got intolerably worse, and Studio City became a place with a rare good school that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. I didn’t notice because I made enough money to afford St. Francis elementary and Notre Dame high school for my four boys, but I did see there were a lot more kids around than there were when we moved in.

Anyway, on my walk I saw an amazing number of well dressed – some expensively so – young women in very good physical condition, all with good manners and very polite to the old geezer with his walker. Since this was about 1400 and a bit later I presumed there must be a lot of stay at home moms here; they were far too well dressed and groomed for any large part of that horde to be nannies (although there were some obvious nannies), which says something about the times.

When I was growing up, women’s liberation meant not having to work outside the home – in the Depression the only work many could find was not enough to support a family and the wife had to work as well, and during World War II defense jobs opened up for women; but many wanted to go back home and be mothers. Times have changed now, but I note that Studio City has many young women with children in school who can show up, well dressed and well groomed, at two PM to walk their children home when they get out at 2:30. They looked happy with that.

Of course, this being Studio City, I know that some of them are actresses and models, looking for parts and some with parts – I could recognize one or two, and the girl next door is a regular character in one of Tim Allen’s sitcoms, Last Man Standing. Of course Amanda has no kids – well, on the show she does, she’s the daughter with a son, but in real life she isn’t married. I suppose some might be script writers who work at home, but there were few to no men. And models, possibly just back from a shoot, or hoping to be called to one. In any event it was a pleasant experience, to go for a walk and see a fashion show…






Kirk Douglas Turns 100


And by accident a copy of his autobiography fell into my hands just the other day and I read some of the early chapters before putting it down, I can’t remember where. Not a bad read, actually.


US Regulations Overseas

Regarding the impact of US regulations in other countries, I was once many years ago on a consulting team sent to a Swedish manufacturing plant in a town remote enough that on the road north of town was a sign reading “Santa Claus, this way.” The reason was that FDA auditors had visited their plant and found violations, such as assembly operators using hand-written notes for instructions rather that properly reviewed and approved company Work Instructions. The FDA auditors had actually stripped the hand-written instructions from the walls and other places where they were taped — whereupon the workforce was unable to assemble the devices at all. We were recommended to help them put together a proper manual of instructions, a task at which we succeeded. The point is that even then, the long arm of US regulatory agencies could reach up to Santa Claus’ doorstep. If a medical device was exported to the USA, its manufacture was subject to spot audits from the FDA.
I also learned that when the German engineers met with the Swedish manufacturing people, they had to use English because they did not speak each other’s language.
Mike Flynn

And of course the devices were subject to the special medical device tax that helps finance Obamacare, although of course they probably were not at the time of this story. It took brains and big greed to tax crutches and wheelchairs. I hadn’t realized that the assembly process inspections were part of “Free Trade”; or for that matter anyone would be fool enough to put up with that. If you can’t tell it’s incorrectly assembled from the finished product…


How AI is revolutionising the role of the literary critic | Aeon Essays

As a software guy I find this pretty interesting. Parsing books for ideas and info using algorithms gets a lot more interesting when we can leverage AI in the process. 

What’s really interesting is that maybe this could lead to AI driven code refactoring for modernizing large applications. 

Who knows…maybe in a few decades the NYT literary critic will be an AI.

John Harlow

I have mixed emotions about this. I read reviews for informed opinions, and I have trouble understanding how an AI has opinions at all; but perhaps sp. After all, AI’s in my stories definitely have opinions based on a primary table of preferences…


Free trade reducto


A couple of observations on free trade.

a) Free trade used to mean “A buyer in Country A could contract to purchase commodities from a seller in Country B, with no government involvement (with the possible exception of civil or criminal court actions in cases of default on the terms of contract).

Whatever you call a trade agreement to which governments are party, “free” trade is not an accurate description.

b) In the event you have a product liability case against a foreign manufacturer and cannot pursue it, you should be able to pursue your claim using tort law against the importer. (For some reason, I’ve never heard of anyone attempting a product liability case against Chinese manufacture.) 


The Chinese method is to ship a satisfactory product, then gradually reduce the quality of components and the skill of the assemblers until the purchaser complains. Adjustments are quickly made until the buyer is once again satisfied, then the process starts all over again. American importers – some of them – are learning that. Others don’t until it’s too late.

I doubt you’ll win any cases in a Chinese court…


Facts and Theory

First, continued best wishes to you and Roberta hoping that you are both able to enjoy the holiday season with family and friends.
Your correspondent Mike Flynn had some very cogent thoughts on fact and theory, but I think he got ahead of himself when he said, “Similarly, the Evolution of species is a fact, and Natural Selection is one theory put forward to explain it. Sexual selection, neutral selection, natural genetic engineering, et al. are other theories.”

The Existence of species is an incontrovertible fact. Evolution belongs on the other side of his equation. Evolution is a man-made attempt to impose order on a system whose mechanisms we can only speculate. Evolution is no more settled science than climate change and inspires similar religious fervor.
John Thomas

I think I will let others argue that one. It is clear that some species evolved from others – or are these species? Take dogs and wolves; are they different species? Is it Canis familiaris or Canis lupus familiaris? Is this a subspecies – race – breed – of wolf, or a new species? It is certain that species exist, and races within species. It is certain that dogs descend from wolves (and can interbreed with them). It seems reasonable to assume that horses and donkeys have a common ancestor, but their crossbreed offspring (mules) are generally infertile. A mule is the offspring of a jackass and a mare. I once saw an animal that looked like a mule and was said to be born of a female mule and a stallion, but I do not know that to be the case.

Going further, we know of species that cannot interbreed, but which are sufficiently similar to allow us to deduce with some certainty that they must have had a common ancestor, even if that ancestor no longer exists.

Those who find this discussion interesting may find Fred’s speculations amusing. While Fred writes more for humor than persuasion, he produces some powerful arguments in the evolutionary debates. Of course questioning Darwinian Evolution will probably get a tenured professor fired as either stupid or mad or both in most universities, and speculation on the origin of species generally cannot stray far from the modern modifications of Darwin; certainly cannot include the notion of design. Yet questions remain for some few…


blast and damnation


John Glenn, America’s New Frontiersman, Dead at 95

Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth and later served four terms in the U.S. Senate. As a Marine fighter pilot, while flying 149 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War, he received praise for his ability to draw enemy fire and keep the plane flying with huge holes blown into its exterior. Most Americans remember Glenn for taking to space in 1962. Dubbed Friendship 7, Glenn’s space capsule circled the Earth and put the United States on equal footing with the Soviet Union in the space race.

Stephanie Osborn

“The Interstellar Woman of Mystery”

This is of course only one of a great many on this subject. I met John Glenn in the late 50’s as part of the space suit tests; I also designed and conducted some stress tests, and several of the original astronauts, including Glenn, were among my test subjects. He was more immune to distraction than anyone else I have ever met.


Free Trade

With respect to Mr. Keegan’s “Lincoln’s Epigram & the Cost of Trade”, both of his (and Lincoln’s) points are fallacious as justifications for protectionism.
“The first point Lincoln was making is simple: if the United States was to grow its wealth, we needed to purchase from each other and export to foreigners. By purchasing from each other, we keep our wealth at home, while exporting to foreigners brings their wealth to us.”
No matter who is the purchaser of goods or services produced in the United States, the seller receives the same wealth for his efforts, and if he is a successful businessman, he covers his costs and earns the same profit, which he is then free to spend and/or to invest, and he is of course most likely to invest some of that surplus in growing his own business. And if he has the whole world to sell to and not just domestic markets, which may not value his products more highly than any other place in the world, even with no transportation costs (which are nominal today), he earns a higher profit and thus has more to spend or invest in the domestic economy.
“The second point is more subtle. If we export the cotton to make one shirt to England, we will bring some British wealth to the United States. If we then purchase a British shirt, we send even more wealth to England than we received for our cotton. Raw materials are a low value commodity.”
Again, there may not be much demand in a raw material exporting economy for high value added transformations, and the costs of industrialization may be entirely beyond the capacity of a less developed economy. However, in such a case, if there is abundant local cheap labor it’s likely to attract foreign capital to make optimal (because local) use of it, which is the whole story of what’s been happening in recent decades with developing countries and emerging markets. The US during the colonial period was a Third World raw commodities exporter, and was kept in that position deliberately by the mercantilist policies of England – not because there was any natural impediment to development – nor, when we threw off the colonial yoke, was there any need for protectionism to allow US industries to emerge and flourish, in spite of British protectionism. Our merchants and manufactures simply traded with other countries that were less intent on preserving trade monopolies for their governments and crony capitalist buddies.
As for Shylock Holmes’s argument that free trade is contrary to the interests of many individuals, if not to the interests of society, and its economy, as a whole, I say: So what? That’s true of any economic transaction. If I purchase a toaster manufactured by Corporation A, from Merchant X, rather than a different model made by Corporation B, and sold by Merchant Y, A and X benefit at the expense of B and Y, yet we don’t (unless we are communists) say that the latter ought to be compensated by “transfer payments” – a euphemism for government extortion. And the principle’s the same whether I’m selling my labor services or something I own. The mere fact that I think that my labor or my goods are undervalued in the market doesn’t give me a right to steal from others in compensation. If I feel sorry for Corporation B or Merchant Y because they’re not doing as well as their competitors, I am perfectly free to patronize them on that account, or if I feel sorry for their workers who are laid off in consequence, I could offer to compensate them directly, either personally or through a voluntary charity. That is the way free, responsible people in a free society address such problems, and it was the American Way until our governments became the coercive agents of special interests.
Holmes also argues, without citing any persuasive evidence, that people need jobs to give their lives a sense of meaning (that leisure past a certain point is deleterious to happiness), and that modern social pathologies are especially rampant and a consequence of this, but I would argue instead, that moderns have been so spoiled and cossetted in our decadent society that they’ve never learned that each of us existentially has to learn to create our own meanings and values in life, and that the best way to do that is to figure out what we like to do (whether we are compensated for it or not), and put our heart and soul into that activity. If we are lucky, by getting good at something we may be able to find someone to pay us for our activities; otherwise, we will have to fall back on our leisure time, and the more of it, the better.
I would argue instead that “work” is something you need to be “compensated” for, precisely because it is not the way one would chose to make use of the time devoted to it, and that insofar as a job provides social activities, it isn’t work – it’s time stolen from the employer, no different morally from appropriating office supplies for one’s personal use. If the main value of a job is provide an outlet for one’s social impulses, that tells me that the work itself is perceived as less than enjoyable, or meaningful. I also note that in Soviet Russia, everyone had a job, but that substance abuse was the norm, not the exception, because the work was correctly perceived as meaningful or valuable. I would also argue that most white collar jobs in America today are make work bureaucratic jobs, in effect created by the government through gratuitous and counterproductive regulation. Most of the real white collar work that people engaged in in my own youth (the 1950s and 1960s) has long since been automated, and most of the time on the job today consists of sitting in useless wheel-spinning meetings, and in generating paper work for others to process. No wonder that modern college “educated” Americans are bored and turning to substance abuse, promiscuity, and the like.
The way out of this dilemma is not more government intervention, it is less intervention – massively less. Government subsidies for idleness need to be phased out; all tariffs and protectionist devices need to be scrapped; all government regulation of business per se needs to be terminated; and along with that the double taxation of business profits needs to be ended (profits are now taxed first at the corporate level, then again when what remains is distributed as income to the owners of the business). These changes would kick start annual growth in this country to at least 10% per year, and whole categories of rewarding and meaningful personal service jobs for Americans would emerge, with the internet as the great facilitator of that process. By personal service jobs, I mean the provision of specialized information, entertainment, social interaction, counseling, design services – you name it – and most of these jobs would remain American because only entrepreneurs and would-be employees who have grown up in America would understand what there might be a market for in our country, and have the cultural and interactional skills to provide it.
John B. Robb

For a man to love his country, that country ought to be lovely; and only the deserving poor should receive subsidies. Of course many would disagree with either of those statements.

We could all use personal servants, who so far would be much more useful than the best robots, and some might even care. But when enough of the population contributes nothing but their progeny to the public good, can democracy last? For now we can get the economy going again by reducing regulations.


Dear Doctor Pournelle,

An idea on taxes.

In tax incentive deals for businesses, it is often pointed out that the taxes not levied on the corporation are offset by the taxes on the income of the employees of the corporation, which either are new revenue in the case of a corporation moving one of its’ operations into a tax region, or are tax revenue not lost in the case of keeping an existing corporate operation from moving from a tax region.

Taking a page from the operation manual of such tax havens as the Cayman Islands, what if the Federal government, or a state, just decided not to tax corporations. A corporation may earn as much as it can, and not pay tax on income. The moment corporate money passes into any other “hands”, it becomes taxable, but so long as the corporation keeps it or invests it, it is non-taxable. This would mean personal tax rates would go order to replace the loss of corporate tax revenue,,, but would that increase not be offset by a huge boost in business activity, increased hiring, a more competitive job market with consequent rising wages/salaries, and everyone is better off.

Yes, it’s a variant of “trickle down economics”, but I’ve always thought the reason liberals hate that concept is that it doesn’t give them a way of making people do things against their will, which is a large part of what makes a “liberal” heart go pitty-pat.

Of course, there is something for that Liberal mentality in my idea:

they can indulge their love for Righteous Outrage. Why, that is almost as big a rush as “Do This, Or Else!!!”





Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.



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