The Emotional Oracle

More links from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Your brain knows more than you think. Your gut won't give you a good answer about a complex situation you're completely ignorant of, but it may give you an excellent result if you've been exposed to a lot of facts that you haven't yet had a chance to sort through rationally and systematically. Experimenters found that subjects could make very good seat-of-the-pants guesses about complex systems like the stock market, sports tournaments, and weather, after they'd had a mass of uncoordinated data shoved at them on each subject. This result is consistent with something I was reading recently about successful techniques for "cramming" for quiz shows, and with my own experience in picking crossword solutions out of what sometimes seems like thin air. I suppose it's also related to what allows great athletes to do the impossible, or even what makes typing or playing the piano possible without tripping over one's own feet like the proverbial self-conscious centipede.

I wonder if people would do better or worse at this trick after the electro-treatment I mentioned in my last post?

All Quiet in the Head

A nagging millstone, or the "still, small voice"? A mild electro-therapy to the brain is said to quiet the internal cacophony and permit its subjects to learn new tasks with greater ease. It sounds like a way to get catapulted right into The Zone. The author reports that the effect lasted for about three days, and that she missed it like crazy when it wore off. If the device were commercially available, she'd "wear one at all times and have two in my backpack ready in case something happened to the first one." But she wonders whether we would be better or worse people without the nagging doubts that we so often hear in our minds.

Art Against War

The New Criterion has an article called "The New Old Lie," which treats the current demand that war always be treated as essentially meaningless.

The latter view, Schwarz has written, “that combat, even combat that defeats Nazi Germany, is without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose” is “unusually clear-eyed” about “real war.” This belief has been overlooked by a population that wants to be coddled and so refuses to recognize that true artistry goes hand in hand with, as Schwarz would have it, the accurate, nihilistic view of war. 
This conceit has long been de rigueur among professional critics of high culture. In his introduction to Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson equated human war to the aggression of gangs of baboons and sea slugs: “at bottom the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism.”... 
Over the past half century, scarcely an American student has studied Great War poetry without finding out that Wilfred Owen produced the greatest poem of the war. With its horrifying depictions of the suffering and death of fighting in the trenches, his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” proved “the old lie”—that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. Tellingly, we would be hard-pressed to find a student these days who has read “Dulce et Decorum Est” in its original form by Horace. After all, the Roman poet could not possibly have produced art if it contained such sentimental pap.
We've spoken of that poem before. "The divide in our nation is between those who feel that the words are "the Old Lie," and those who engrave them in stone."

Why PUA Techniques Don't Work:

xkcd has it nailed.

You can't beat this without hitting bottom.  And once you've hit bottom, you're not looking down on other people:  you're looking up.

I think of the scene from "Fight Club" where Tyler Durden forces the Asian guy, at gunpoint, to return to his studies.  It's at that moment, facing death as a failure, that you realize that anything would be better than this.

And so, you're looking up.  As long as they're fighting, they're fighting for something better.  God save them, and us.

Happy Lent.  Mine has been a failure so far:  and that means it has been a success.  Lent, taken seriously, is also about hitting bottom.  It lets you know that you ought to love the man who is your enemy, because a man like you deserves an enemy.  The man you ought to hate is the man who will accommodate you as you are.

A Song for Spring

The spring is upon us.  And so, a song:

It has a name that honors the generation before the one currently fecund; but without them, how would we have the new?

UPDATE:  As to which, our brothers at BSBFB say...

[W]hat's the difference between bagpipes and an onion? No one cries when you chop up a bagpipe. What's the difference between a bagpipe and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump up and down on a trampoline...
Thanks, guys.  We almost appreciate it.

A Surplus in Five Years

The senators most aligned with the TEA Party have produced legislation designed not merely to balance the budget, but to create a surplus within five years.  Such a plan might begin to address the severe budgetary issues threatening the nation:  the unfunded promises in Federal pensions, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that will consume the budget.  We must do this sooner and faster, rather than later and more slowly.

The Hill describes the plan -- eventually, after seven paragraphs of explaining that it is a "wish list" that can "never pass" and providing talking points about it.  Here are the details.
The lawmakers said they would turn Medicare into a premium support plan that would give seniors the same healthcare plan as members of Congress. They say this would save an estimated $1 trillion over 10 years....  
The trio would curb Social Security spending by increasing the retirement age over time and indexing benefits to individual incomes. High-income earners would see slower growth in their benefits while low-income workers would see increased benefits.   
The proposal would fund Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and child nutrition programs through block grants.  It would cut most discretionary spending to fiscal year 2008 levels but spare national defense spending from the deep cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.  It would freeze foreign aid spending at $5 billion a year and eliminate the departments of Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development and Energy and privatize the Transportation Security Administration.   
The plan would repeal the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
All of that sounds like a good start.  It's a nice touch that they don't "eliminate" foreign aid, as it is one of our cheaper but more effective foreign policy tools.  It's an easy cut that demagogues often suggest to Americans, but we get a lot of mileage out of USAID in places like the southern Philippines.

Pagans MC and the 2nd Amendment

Volokh comments on an interesting case that shows something of the limits of our legal approach to the world.  American laws are based on a model drawn up by businessmen and lawyers, who have a certain way of approaching the world in which business-style arrangements are assumed to be good models for thinking about other social arrangements.  Thus, we have John Locke's concept of a "social contract," which substitutes a business model for the actual facts about how political bonds are formed and maintained; and we have the modern concept of marriage as a sort-of contract rather than a kinship bond, the limits of which we've discussed at length here.

Another limitation is demonstrated by the current case.  The President of a chapter of the Pagans Motorcycle Club (PMC) is a convicted felon who is, therefore, denied exercise of second amendment rights.  Now, he lives in a violent world in which he might come into conflict with the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC), which has been trying to push the PMC out of some of its traditional territory, and so he feels (with some justice!) that he needs protection.

Many men in a situation where the law was putting their lives at risk -- and not merely outlaw bikers! -- would simply have thumbed their noses at the law and done what they felt they had to do.  Our chapter President, however, actually obeyed the law in spite of his felonious past:  he just asked that members of his club who were able to obtain lawful concealed weapons permits do so, and then carry firearms when with him on club business in order to protect him.

The court has held that those club members who did this -- who, remember, were able to pass the criminal background checks required for them to obtain legitimate concealed weapon permits -- broke Federal law.  The reason the court believes this is true is that it accepts the government's argument that the club members were "employed" by the chapter President.  The club members appealed the conviction on the grounds that, actually, they weren't employed by the President at all:  he didn't pay them, for one thing; there was no contract; there were no benefits; and they certainly didn't conceive of it as an employer-employee relationship.  This is because it wasn't an employer-employee relationship!  They weren't his employees, but members of a club.

I frankly think that PMC is in the right here, and the government in the wrong.  The government wants to act on the presumption that PMC is an organized criminal group, but it hasn't proven that.  The government's argument is that 'employed' is a word with several senses, and one of those senses is 'used for a purpose'; but, while that is in some sense true, it's nonsense as an argument in this case.  It's clear that isn't what the statute controls.  It controls employment relationships.

The reason this law doesn't prevent what the government would like to prevent here is that the law was written by people who brought these contract-type assumptions to the problem.  PMC and HAMC and the others are not like corporations (even if, as sometimes happens, they incorporate in order to register trademarks and such).  Their fundamental ethic is not capitalist.  They don't live in the same world as the lawyers and businessmen who wrote the law.  A law built around contracts, employers and employees, and so forth, is naturally irrelevant to what these motorcycle clubs are doing.

What you are dealing with in PMC is the Jomsvikings.  They are a warrior brotherhood bound by a code that separates them from the rest of American society, and which is enforced outside the law by systems of honor backed by violence and threats of violence.

The existence of such an order within American society may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how it is used and for what purpose.  My reading on these kinds of clubs is that they are usually a mixture of good and bad.  The old war-band ethic has a lot to recommend it, and some men may find it to be the order that lets them structure a life worth living.

You can see a lot of the mixture of good and bad in this old documentary.  (There are nine parts; watch for Jerry Garcia playing a HAMC wedding, which is conducted on terms that are surely unenforcable in any court -- a fact that might give the lie to the idea that marriage is a contract, since if it were, you could enter into a contract on such terms.)  However you shake out on the idea of good and bad, though, what should be clear to everyone is this:  what they are doing has nothing to do with laws based on contracts and employment.  They're doing something very different from any of that.

The Afghan Ulema Council Ruling on Women

Ms. Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan Member of Parliament who survived a Taliban attempt on her life, worries that a recent ruling by the Afghan Ulema Council represents an outreach by Karzai to the Taliban.
"They have started taking some of those basic rights," she said, "like working together, living together, going out like a free human being. I am worried for my daughters and for all the girls and women of Afghanistan."
It's certainly right to be worried.  A rush transcript of the ruling can be read here; it dwells chiefly on the rights of women in Islam until section "F," when we hear about the other side of the coin.

F.   Women cannot be inherited. Similarly, there are many other rights, granted to a woman under the religion of Islam, which are observed. But, where a Muslim woman has many rights, [she also] has duties and obligations, such as:
* Adherence, in faith and action, to the orders and prohibitions of Islam’s sacred Shariah
* Complete adherence and observance of the hijab [according to the Shariah], which protects the dignity and personality of the woman
* Avoiding mingling with stranger men in various social situations, such as education, shopping, the office and other affairs of life
* In consideration of the clarity of verses 1 and 34 of Surah an-Nisa’ [of the Qur’an], men are fundamental and women are secondary; also, lineage is derived from the man. Therefore, the use of words and expressions that contradict the sacred verses must be strictly avoided.
* Respecting [the orders] about the multiplicity of wives (polygamy), which are in accordance with clear orders of the Qur’an
* Avoiding travel without a [Shariah-sanctioned] mahram (male companion)
* Adherence to the clear orders of Muhammad’s Shariah in case of divorce

The authors helpfully cite the source of their claim that women are secondary:  verses 1 and 34 of the Surah an-Nisa' (i.e., "The Women").  As we all know by now, the Koran is supposed to be the actual word of God, filtered only by Muhammad and the angel, allegedly Gabriel, who revealed it to him.
1. O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam), and from him (Adam) He created his wife [Hawwa (Eve)], and from them both He created many men and women and fear Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (do not cut the relations of) the wombs (kinship) . Surely, Allah is Ever an All-Watcher over you.... 
34. Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband's absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband's property, etc.). As to those women on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful), but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.
You may also find verse 11 to be telling, since it deals with inheritance rights between sons and daughters; though, remember that the English tradition was primogeniture; this system, though unequal, does provide a better inheritance (and therefore, property) system for the daughters than that.

The BBC notes that this ruling has the potential to reverse the legal freedoms instituted for women in Afghanistan a decade ago, following the American invasion.

I gather that the American people will not endure a presence in Afghanistan of the length that we devoted to, say, Japan or South Korea.  That being so, it will fall on women like Fawzia Koofi to prove these freedoms are rights.  Perhaps there are ways we can be of some service, even once we can no longer hold back the tide.

Americans had better steel themselves to swallow this, though, if we do choose to walk away.  You're going to have a chance to reconsider just what is meant by the word "rights."  Those things, taken for granted, are like wine:  they are a gift from God, in the sense that the possibility of wine -- like the possibility of freedom -- is inherent in the structure of the world.  Yet if the good is to be had it must be made by human hands, and made new every year.  If we do not do the work, there will be no wine.

But wine, I have heard, is also banned by the Koran.

Sic Transit Lex

By now you will have heard that one of the most famous, and most justly famous, of the milbloggers died when his fighter crashed yesterday.  The man we called Neptunus Lex was a good companion (especially, one might be inclined to say under happier circumstances, for a fighter pilot).  He was also a good writer:  his thoughts were clear and his expression courtly.

You can leave condolences at his place.  I am going to follow the example at BLACKFIVE and close the comments here, because it's best that they be made where his family can see them.

He had a mechanical problem with his plane just a few days ago.  You may remember reading about it.
It’s funny how quickly you can go from “comfort zone” to “wrestling snakes” in this business. 
But even snake wrestling beats life in the cube, for me at least. In measured doses.
Spoken like a man.  He certainly was one.

Some Go Back

My father was a long-time Captain of the local Volunteer Fire Department.  Thus I know, and have had it impressed upon me since I was quite young, that no one should ever go back into a burning building.  The people who go back in to rescue others, having made it out themselves, almost never survive.

For some things, though, I'd go back too.
Firefighters recovered the body of Chief Warrant Officer Edward Cantrell on the second floor of his North Carolina home, not far from the remains of 6-year-old Isabella and 4-year-old Natalia.
I'm sorry, Chief.  You did all you could.  Angels can do no more.

"The Premium for a Burning House Is the Price of the House"

Megan McArdle, whose columns and comment boards I so enjoy, is taking a sabbatical to work on a large project. She arranged for a handful of colleagues to cover for her; one posted today on the subject of the American healthcare system. It's a decent post, but my favorite part was a link to a couple of old articles, two of the best summaries I've found of the dumb things we do to ourselves under the name of the health insurance system. One is brief while the other is rather long, but very well worth reading from start to finish. Both make the essential distinction between insurance and prepaid medical care.

Election Day

It's election day in Georgia, and I just went and cast the shortest ballot I ever did:  there was exactly one question before the electorate today.  Although it's an important question, it's not very significant that you get out and vote today:  Nate Silver estimates that my preferred candidate has a zero-percent chance of winning (running third behind Mr. Romney, whom Silver estimates to have a one-percent chance).  My opinions line up about as well as usual with that of the democratic majority, even in Georgia.

Still, delegates are divided proportionately, so it's not a complete waste of a trip; and more, there's something to be said for participating in its own right.

Much has been said about the damage done by an extended primary, but there is a real virtue in counting the votes.  The longest primary I can recall was the 2008 fight between then-Senators Clinton and Obama, which was also said to be crippling to both; but in fact, there was a landslide victory for their party in the fall.  It's a good thing if people listen to the debates, read and think, and then have a chance to vote and know that their vote counts.

The Democratic Party fell down on that last point in 2008, resolving contentious issues of vote counting by having Sen. Clinton accede to a nomination of her opponent by general acclamation.  She was a loyal soldier in that, as probably Mr. Santorum will be also should he lose:  after all, he was once the Republican Party's whip.

The idea of democratic legitimacy may not survive, but it is an ideal I have fought for and continue to defend.  This is not because it means that my side wins, because -- insofar as I have a "side" at all, there being so very few people who believe as I do -- there are far too few people like me to prevail even in the smallest and most local contest.

No, it is because my father told me as a boy about people who would stand in line to vote even though guerrillas would come and fire into the line.  It is because, in Iraq, we defended people who stood in line even though mortars would fall and suicide bombers would threaten.  It is because in Afghanistan we have killed men who would themselves kill to prevent women from voting, and because those women may not be able to vote for much longer.

Democracy may not be the right way to choose a government or a policy, but democracy is our cause whether it's right or wrong.  That may not be a good argument, but sometimes honor demands that we do things that wiser people wouldn't do.

On White Bread

The surprise here is how interesting the subject turns out to be:
In 1890, 90 percent of the country's bread was baked in homes. The rest was purchased from tiny neighborhood bakeries. By 1930, this trend had reversed completely: 90 percent of bread was purchased, and purchased from increasingly large, increasingly distant factories....
Legions of food reformers, social workers, public-health officials, advertising executives, and an astonishing number of diet gurus worked frantically to convince Americans that choosing the wrong bread would lead to serious problems. Some pinpointed newfangled loaves as the source of cancer, diabetes, criminal delinquency, tuberculosis, kidney failure, overstimulated nervous systems, and even "white race suicide." Others heralded modern bread as a savior, delivering the nation from drudgery, hunger, and dangerous contagions carried by unscientific bread. But they could all agree on one thing: Incorrect food choices were the root cause of nearly all of the nation's moral, physical, and social problems....
Even that sentimental icon of all that is good—"Mother's bread"—was denounced under the banner of a safe and efficient diet. Scientific American, women's magazines, and home-economics textbooks portrayed careless home baking as a threat to family health, while other observers wondered whether even the most careful housewife should bake at all. 
This is one of those things I've always wondered about, albeit only vaguely:  how did we as a nation come to give up something as wonderful as fresh bread?  It's not hard to make, and a local bakery isn't a huge extravagance.  Many other nations have managed to continue having locally-baked, fresh bread available even as they've modernized their economies.

Now I know.  There's something about these little panics by mass media that we should begin to recognize:  they always makes things worse.  Except, of course, for Big Bread, which came out gloriously well from the exercise.

It's Hard To Write A Love Song To Yourself...

...but apparently that's the wave of the future.

The movie will apparently be called "Brave," but at this point, it might better be called "Hackneyed."  How many movies of this type have there been over the last twenty years?  It's gone on so long that it would be brave to make a movie that told a traditional fairy tale.

The difference between a traditional fairy tale and this kind goes beyond the obvious -- the female hero who can outfight all the boys with ease, which is now the standard rather than the transgressive model.  Rather, the real difference is masked by that aspect:  you couldn't make this movie with a male hero, because people would be outraged to see young women portrayed as a pack of useless losers.  People would hate the male hero whose attitude conveyed that it was an insult to his excellence to suggest he might marry some penny-ante girl from his village.  The female lead allows them to tell the story they want to tell without running up against the uncomfortable truth about what kind of a story it is they are telling.

The real difference is that the love story has been replaced, in our age, by the story of the 'hero' in love with herself.  Prince Charming, whatever his flaws, was driven by love for another:  his service, and his sacrifice, were for a beloved lady he valued above his own life and for whom he would suffer any pain and dare any peril.  The modern 'hero' is focused on her own fulfillment, resisting every duty to her family or her society as an injustice that interferes with her personal journey of self-actualization.

I can't wait for the "Princess Bride" remake:  you know, the one where Buttercup escapes by knocking the giant out with a rock, swims out to the waiting pirate ship and takes command as the Dread Pirate Roberta, calling back to shore as Wesley is led away to his doom:  "You didn't think I'd waste my life on a farm boy?"

Well, no.  Of course not.  True love doesn't happen every day.

Sorry Folks, Nothing We Can Do

Our friends at Samizdata continue to chronicle the disaster that is the modern state from a British perspective.
[A man] drowned in a shallow boating pond in his local park, after suffering an epileptic seizure while feeding swans. A passer-by (a woman who was in charge of a small child so did not dare enter the pond) called the emergency services. But the first firemen to show up announced that they only had Level One training, for ankle-deep water, and needed to wait for a specialist team with Level Two training for chest-deep water.
Remember when "Anarchy in the UK" sounded like a threat rather than a suggestion for improvement?