Suspending the critical faculty

Robert Weissberg, Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at The University of Illinois-Urbana, outlines a cure for what ails the American university.
Now here's my plan. The Koch brothers will secretly underwrite a version of the traditional "Junior Year Abroad" with a strong Peace Corp component.  Have students live among the locals, on small stipends, eat their food and so on.  University credit will be given and everything will be totally free, including transportation.  Meanwhile, there will generous "supervision" fees (i.e., bribes) to the university and professors.  For a start, send out perhaps a hundred students from each of the top 25 universities. 
We'll use a seductive name--"Promoting Economic Justice, One Village at a Time" or "Peace Through Understanding." ...  Locals, including the wise village elders will teach the courses with lots of hands-on experience working in the fields harvesting crops, clearing brush and similar Peace Corps-like activities (recall the early 1960s glory years of helping in the Cuban sugar cane harvest was the ultimate liberal status symbol).  For pedagogical purposes, illnesses will be exclusively treated with traditional, natural remedies (no Big Pharma pills, no greedy doctors!) while all disputes will likewise be settled in accord with indigenous customs.  Critically, students will be told that they are there to learn, not proselytize Western values, and so if men beat their wives, don't criticize; try to understand.  The model is participant-observer anthropology, not the Western missionary.
Once the graduates of the new program return and start raising uncomfortable questions in class about the evils of American society and the socialist paradise on other shores, Weissberg has an even more brilliant and cost-effective plan for dealing with the outraged professors.

H/t Maggie's Farm.

The Everything Store

We rely on Amazon out here for a great many things, from tablecloths to appliances to whatever food our (single) local grocery store doesn't carry.  Bloomberg is running excerpts from a fascinating new book about this useful company and the surprising life story of its founder, Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post and moonlights once a week on a company that's trying to establish affordable commercial space flight.

What keeps me coming back to Amazon?  I rarely shop for anything I can't find somewhere on its website.  They offer a year's reliable two-day shipping at a flat rate.  Their customer reviews are reliable.  They make it easy for me to check out, without any of the tiresome repetitive logging in or glitchy "shopping cart" pages that plague so many other e-tail sites.   In every way, they focus on pleasing customers.
Jeff Bezos has a public e-mail address,  Not only does he read many customer complaints, he forwards them to the relevant Amazon employees, with a one-character addition: a question mark. 
When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb.  They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself.  Such escalations, as these e-mails are known, are Bezos’s way of ensuring that the customer’s voice is constantly heard inside the company. 
Amazon employees live daily with these kinds of fire drills.  “Why are entire teams required to drop everything on a dime to respond to a question mark escalation?” an employee once asked at the company’s biannual meeting held at Seattle’s KeyArena, a basketball coliseum with more than 17,000 seats.  “Every anecdote from a customer matters,” Wilke replied.  “We research each of them because they tell us something about our processes. It’s an audit that is done for us by our customers.  We treat them as precious sources of information.”

On the Feast of St. Edwin

Columbus Day may be right out, and anyway it was one of those days that chases a Friday or Monday in the hope of making a day off for people. But there's no reason to concede that the 12th of October is just some ordinary day. It's also the feast day of one of the great Anglo-Saxon saints, the kind Tolkien might have loved: St. Edwin of Northumbria, a worthy man whose life exemplifies the virtues of hospitality, clear thought, friendship, and defense of the innocent.

Tough review

A Slate contributor takes the ever-popular pop-psy author Malcolm Gladwell to task:
Accessorizing your otherwise inconsistent or incoherent story-based argument with pieces of science is a profitable rhetorical strategy because references to science are crucial touchpoints that help readers maintain their default instinct to believe what they are being told.  They help because when readers see "science" they can suppress any skepticism that might be bubbling up in response to the inconsistencies and contradictions.  I believe that most of Gladwell’s readers think he is telling stories to bring alive what science has discovered, rather than using science to attach a false authority to the ideas he has distilled from the stories he chooses to tell.
Malcolm Gladwell's name inexplicably tends to take up the space that more properly in reserved in my memory for Matt Ridley, an excellent author who deserves considerably more attention.  (My favorite popular science writer, however, remains Nick Lane.)  This Slate review also suggests to me that a better use of my time than reading Gladwell's latest ("David and Goliath") would be to read the reviewer's own "The Invisible Gorilla." The title refers to a video experiment many of us probably have watched, in which viewers are asked to count the number of passes in an excerpt from a basketball game, and uniformly fail to notice a man in a gorilla suit who runs through the players in the middle of the action.  The book is about our deceptive intuitions concerning our powers of attention and memory.

"I don't know what that means"

And yet, the Senate Majority Leader employed words adapted to the meanest understanding:
"Don't screw this up."
He was responding to the brash decision of the Mayor of D.C. to walk across the lawn and horn in on Sen. Reid's press conference to demand that the Senate pass the House's measure to fund D.C. during the government shutdown.  Sen. Reid walked off in a huff, leaving the Mayor and another flack to try to pour a little oil on the waters.  What did he think Reid meant by "Don't screw this up"?   He couldn't imagine.


How thick is your bubble?

It's Friday, and that means it's Quiz Time!  For once, I've found a quiz where I score right smack in the middle of the road.  Apparently I'm neither working class nor upper class, but truly middlebrow.  Score:  44.

Focussing the mind wonderfully

I love recalls.  Legislators are way too complacent without them.  Legislators should live in either constant fear of their constituents, or serene indifference to staying in office.

Citizens step up when government throws a tantrum

I encourage donations to Fisher House.

An Occasional Lapse in Absence

I would like to thank Tex especially, and the rest of you also, for carrying on so well in my absence. I will continue to be mostly not around for a while, but today I have had some time to catch my breath and look around a bit. I don't know if it will last, but it has given me a chance to come by and see what you have been doing.

Thank you all who have written to inquire about my beloved wife. She is doing better. It will still be a while before she is fully recovered, but I hope that in a few weeks she will at least be more mobile. For now, as Tex put it, I am much occupied with her care; but this is good, in a way. It is a chance to honor my oath, and to focus on love in sickness -- or, at least, in injury -- as well as in the joy of robust health.

On which subject, more or less, a set of word clouds broken up by various ages, by sex (far less interesting differences are discovered here than usual, this time), and by various emotional states. I think there is an interesting correlation between the positive emotional states and certain age groups. See what you think.

Grownups only

Gov. Christie often alienates me with his statism, but I have to admit it's an unusually sensible and honest brand of statism.  He also charms me with his ability to step out of traps and ruts and think on his feet.  You can watch him here demolishing his opponent in a debate, without veering one step from the path of truthfulness and courtesy.  She's left looking like a snide teenager who stumbled into an event meant for adults.  Ronald Reagan couldn't have done it better.

What do Tea Partiers want?

Our rulers are as clueless on this subject as Freud about women.  From Kevin D. Williamson this morning:
But our so-called liberals are committed Hobbesians.  Argue for a reduction in taxes, or a more restrictive interpretation of delegated powers, or allowing the states to take the lead on health care and education, and they’re sure that the next step is a Hobbesian hootenanny in which all of our rump roasts are crawling with bacteria, somebody snatches Piggy’s glasses, and, worst of all, there’s no NPR to ask what it all means.  Like Hobbes, they believe that you hold your property at the sufferance of the state, and that you should pipe down and be grateful for whatever you are allowed to keep.  But the American creed is precisely the opposite:  The state exists at our sufferance, not the other way around, and while few of us actually hold the beliefs that Senator Reid attributes to us and long to abolish the state as a general principle, more than a few of us are interested in making some deep changes to this state.  We may not want to shut it down entirely, but we aren’t sure we want it to load another few trillion dollars in debt onto us.  We aren’t throwing bombs, but we aren’t going to give it everything it demands, either.  Not 40 percent of the last dollar, not a dime to subsidize abortions, not control over our children’s educations or our own consciences.  Hobbes wrote about subjects.  We’re citizens.
It might be more accurate to say we have a tradition of aspiring to be citizens, which has never been universally honored among us and is not guaranteed to survive if we persist in agreeing to act more like subjects in return for physical security and our share of the plunder.

Not talking like a Martian

Thomas Sowell sums up our frustration with conservative leaders who can't communicate a simple point to save their lives:
When the government was shut down during the Clinton administration, Republican leaders who went on television to tell their side of the story talked about “OMB numbers” versus “CBO numbers”—as if most people beyond the Beltway knew what these abbreviations meant or why the statistics in question were relevant to the shutdown.  Why talk to them in Beltway-speak? 
When Speaker Boehner today goes around talking about the “CR,” that is just more of the same thinking—or lack of thinking.  Policy wonks inside the Beltway know that he is talking about the continuing resolution that authorizes the existing level of government spending to continue, pending a new budget agreement.
I've worked with way too many lawyers like this: addicted to meaningless acronyms. Would it kill Boehner to get in the habit of calling it a "blank check" instead of a clean CR?

"Sir, you are recreating."

If you know anyone who was caught outside the country on 9/11 and unable to fly back home for several days, you know what it's like to be caught up in a national emergency and temporarily inconvenienced.  You probably never expected to be locked in a hotel at gunpoint in Yellowstone Park, though, or forbidden to take snapshots of buffalo from your bus window.  "Stop recreating this instant!"

I think the park rangers in this story are the spiritual brothers of our local game warden, whose mission in life is to use his tiny police power to harass golf cart drivers.

Mutt language

A thoroughly enjoyable "Great Courses" lecture got me interested in John McWhorter's many books on liguistics.  This week I've been reading "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" and "The Power of Babel."  The first is about the mixed-up roots of English, while the second treats more generally the theories of how languages evolve, but still with a lot of emphasis of English's peculiar history.

Most of us notice early on, I suppose, that English generally has three broad choices in expressing an idea:  an earthy Teutonic word, a polite French alternative, and a technical Latin expression.  We think, reason, and cogitate; we fight, combat, and altercate.  It's easy enough to see how Old English arrived on the shores of Great Britain in an early Germanic form with Anglo-Saxon invaders who overwhelmed the native Celts; later, we got another dose of Germanic influence from the Vikings.  Latin came over with Julius Caesar and was preserved by the Church.  French enjoyed a brief supremacy after the Norman invasion.  These influences explain much of English's "hybrid" flavor.

McWhorter makes a case, however, for two additional influences that are more controversial and get less press.  First, he believes that English grammar, if not its vocabulary, was heavily influenced by Welsh and Cornish.  These Celtic languages, which are Indo-European but from a completely different branch from either Latin or the Germanic languages, share a highly unusual grammatical structure with English:  the "meaningless do" that causes modern English speakers to say "do you see the bird," whereas King James or earlier English styles would have followed the trend common to the rest of Europe, and said "saw you the bird."  Welsh and Cornish also share with Enblish a heavy reliance on the progressive tense to express ordinary action in the present, such as "I'm drinking the coffee," whereas our Germanic and Romance cousins (and our Old English ancestors) would say "I drink the coffee."

Second, McWhorter traces a surprising fraction of English vocabulary to a very old collision in Northern Europe between the proto-Germanic language and certain unidentified settlers who may well have been Phoenician/Carthaginians.  This influence is strongest in vocabulary having anything to do with the sea or fishing; thus, we have Latin-rooted words like mariner right alongside "seafarer," though (according to McWhorter) "sea" is of a mysterious linguistic ancestry neither Latin nor Germanic.  The Phoenicians are known for some surprisingly wide-ranging navigation.  As McWhorter acknowledges, however, the specific archeological evidence for Phoenician inroads into Northern Europe is quite slim.  Still, he makes an interesting linguistic case.

Much of "The Power of Babel" describes a long, slow, inevitable background of cyclical change that's something like the predictable but opposed geological forces of erosion and uplift.  Over centuries, auxiliary words abbreviate and glue themselves as prefixes and suffixes to other words, often in the form of case and gender endings.  (He gives the example of the French "pas," which originally signified merely a step, as in "he didn't walk a step," but later transformed itself into a piece of abstract grammatical machinery expressing general negation, not limited to physical motion, as in "il ne parle pas.")  At the same time, the natural tendency to swallow an unaccented syllable tends to erode many prefixes and suffixes over time, leaving word roots scraped clean again and ready to undergo the next cycle of accretion.

Against this background is another kind of change that results from the collision of cultures.  In McWhorter's view, vocabulary often is shared any time two languages rub up against each other, but the most fundamental grammatical shifts happen when large numbers of influential people are forced to learn a language as adults, as often happens when invaders take root and settle down.  People who learn a language in adulthood rarely master its most subtle intricacies, and one of the first things to go is a lot of fussy case and gender endings.  English's proto-Germanic ancestor may well have undergone such a simplification in the very distant past.  The evidence is even clearer that the Vikings more recently left English a less inflected language than its European neighbors, with scarcely anything remaining of that nominative-genetive-dative-accusative-male-female-neuter-singular-plural business that afflicts students of Latin, Greek, Russian, German, and to a lesser degree the modern Romance languages like French or Spanish.

Like most linguists, McWhorter is impatient of the notion of a "correct" form of any language.  He analogizes it to the idea that a popular song can have a canonical form.  The only thing he would characterize as an "error" is a usage that marks a speaker as non-native, like saying "We'd all prefer to go to the store now, isn't it?"  (He calls it talking like a Martian.)  Other variations in spelling, vocabulary, or grammar merely reflect local variations in dialect that are slowly developing into independent languages in the same imperceptible way that species differentiate from common ancestors.  At the same time, he's a great believer in the difference between clumsy and skillful communication within a particular dialect, and both writes and speaks in an extremely clear and standard English.


Sarah Hoyt asks today, if women marry the government, from whom will they sue for divorce?

The mind of a Justice

New York Magazine is running an interview with Antonin Scalia.  The interviewer's not bad, though a bit callow.  She is unused to talking to conservatives.  There is a wonderful exchange on the value of testing one's opinions against a dissenting voice--without, of course, hoping to lose the argument:

[Scalia:]  I am something of a contrarian, I suppose.  I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me.  I say, “I better reexamine my position!”  I probably believe that the worst opinions in my court have been unanimous.  Because there’s nobody on the other side pointing out all the flaws. 
Really?  So if you had the chance to have eight other justices just like you, would you not want them to be your colleagues? 
No.  Just six. 
That was a serious question! 

The interviewer is also startled to hear that Justice Scalia is serious about his Catholic faith.  That may be another kind of creature she's not used to encountering.

H/t Maggie's Farm.

It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping

An article on HotAir mentioned a constititional wrinkle I was not familiar with:
There is lingering confusion over the limits on the Senate regarding budgets.  It’s true that the House has to originate bills that raise revenue (Article I Section 7 of the US Constitution), but either chamber can originate spending bills.  Since the debt ceiling is not a tax, the Senate can originate it.
This seems a bit odd, as if increasing the federal piggy bank by borrowing were not "raising revenue" in the same way that imposing taxes is.   It's plausible, perhaps, given the Founders' probable inability to imagine that the U.S. would become the world's reserve currency and gain the ability to borrow seemingly unlimited amounts, right up to the point where the currency collapses.   I found what seems to be a thoughtful Constitutional website, with this to say:
In Federalist 66, for example, Alexander Hamilton writes, "The exclusive privilege of originating money bills will belong to the House of Representatives." This phrase could easily be construed to include taxing and spending.  The Supreme Court has ruled, however, that the Senate can initiate bills that create revenue, if the revenue is incidental and not directly a tax.  Most recently, in US v Munoz-Flores (495 US 385 [1990]), the Court said, "Because the bill at issue here was not one for raising revenue, it could not have been passed in violation of the Origination Clause." The case cites Twin City v Nebeker (176 US 196 [1897]), where the court said that "revenue bills are those that levy taxes, in the strict sense of the word." 
However, the House, it is explained, will return a spending bill originated in the Senate with a note reminding the Senate of the House's prerogative on these matters.  The color of the paper allows this to be called "blue-slipping."  Because the House sees this as a matter of some pride, the Senate is almost guaranteed not to have concurrence on any spending bill which originates in the Senate.  This has created a de facto standard, despite my own contention (and that of the Senate) that it is not supported by the Constitution.
That's an interesting issue if we're wondering about how to think of Obamacare, by the way, which originated in the Senate, now that the Supreme Court has explained to us that it's a tax, not a penalty, sort of.   In fact, there's a new challenge mounting to Obamacare on just that point, which may eventually turn on whether the revenue raised by the tax is incidental rather than direct.   Now that taxes no longer are viewed primarily as revenue-raising tools but as carrots and sticks, it's very hard even for smart Supreme Court justices to work out what "taxes, in the strict sense of the word" is supposed to mean.  So much effort is spent publicizing goodies in each new entitlement program, that our Congressional leaders are quite adept at obfuscating what a tax is.  Even if that confusion were to be cleared up any time soon, I'm not aware that the Supreme Court has ever tried to help us understand the fine Constitutional gradations of meaning that separate "raising revenue" from "borrowing great huge pots of money in order to facilitate an endless avalanche of increased spending."

Until recently, I never noticed the debt ceiling or understood why it might be important.  In a political climate in which people (including our chief executive) argue with a straight face that Congress can pass all the crazy spending obligations it wants, and never worry about how to pay for them, then berate their opponents for threatening to "dishonor" the country's financial "obligations" if they object to breaking a hard-and-fast limit on borrowing, the debt ceiling increasingly seems like a red line to me.  More than that:  an Angel with a fiery sword.


Some California supporters of Obamacare are getting a rude shock.
Vinson, of San Jose, will pay $1,800 more a year for an individual policy, while Waschura, of Portola Valley, will cough up almost $10,000 more for insurance for his family of four. 
. . . 
"Of course, I want people to have health care," Vinson said. "I just didn't realize I would be the one who was going to pay for it personally."

The traffic-cone wars

We take these humble guardians of civilization for granted.  Now an organization has sprung up to correct that injustice:
Until the late 20th century, traffic cones were not thought worthy of scientific study.  It is the Society's mission to counteract these centuries of neglect.  By preserving and studying these "Helpers of Humanity," we hope to allow future generations the opportunity to enjoy these magnificent creatures in their natural habitats.
Not a moment too soon. The sturdy traffic cone has exploded onto the public scene as the pointy end of the spear in our government's attempt to educate the public about what happens when they get uppity. That's not to say that all of the public is taking its lesson in the proper spirit:  some citizens are embracing outright anarchy.

Schemes are being hatched on some of the darker corners of the Internet to corner the market in orange cones and begin deploying them strategically against federal bureaucrats, perhaps even cordoning off the entirety of the District of Columbia.  Because of Congress's failure to regulate this market, traffic cones are freely available on the Internet for purchase by authorized personnel from a variety of corporate manufacturers (see here and here).  Buyers don't need to pass any background checks or secure a license first.  All they need is money.

Did you know traffic cones were invented in 1914?  They've come a long way, not only in manufacturing standards but also in their critical role in the body politic.  Sadly, many did not survive the transition to a new world order.  Those that did, however, are poised to take their place in the current showdown over just who's in charge of whom here:
The Automobile Age was a time of profound and rapid change for Conus.  Burgeoning road construction attracted cones, and most left the valleys and the fields to live on the new roads. They flocked to construction work sites, potholes, and other road hazards.  Unfortunately, these new environs did not favor all cones.  Species of grey and black cones that had previously flourished were rendered almost extinct, as automobiles were much less likely to see them upon the asphalt.  Nature began to favor only the brightest and most visible of cones, which tended to be red, yellow, and orange.
Some traffic cones are less tangible.  The Dept. of Justice briefly concluded, for instance, that it would be a good idea to shut down its Amber Alert website as "non-essential," while keeping open the federally-owned golf course favored by our President.  It didn't take long for someone to realize what a bad idea that was, and now the DOJ has crawfished.  In order to make up for the tax expenditures, however, the Dept. of the Interior announced that it would officially withdraw its permission for Old Faithful to operate.

. . . no, of course not

Snopes is all sniffy about the silly story that's circulating claiming that the National Park Service is blocking views of Mt. Rushmore with tarps.

Obviously this picture is photoshopped, you mouth-breathing troglodytes, it explains.  Bad people clearly ginned the story up to create outrage.  Next they'll be saying that NPS personnel put up traffic cones on October 1 to block people from pulling over on the viewing spots on the side of the nearby highways:

OK, admittedly, according to Snopes, that one's sort of true.
The National Park Service placed cones along highway viewing areas outside Mount Rushmore, barring visitors from pulling over and taking pictures of the famed monument. 
The cones first went up Oct. 1, said Dusty Johnson [South Dakota] Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff.  The state asked that they be taken down, and federal officials did so with some of them.  The state was told the cones were a safety precaution to help channel cars into viewing areas rather than to bar their entrance. 
"I think reasonable people can disagree about that," Johnson said. 
The cones were down again [three days later] as a blizzard hit the Black Hills and plows needed access to the roads, Johnson said.  He said the state would be monitoring to see whether the cones are put back along viewing areas.  "Once the snow's off the ground, we're going to be keeping an eye on how the cones go up," Johnson said.

Breaking the back of summer

Yesterday was in the 90s, but the low this morning dipped in the 50s.  We haven't have lows in the 50's since spring.  Although hot weather surely will return before long, this is the sign that summer doesn't last forever, much as it seems that way after four solid months of opening the front door onto a sauna every morning.

Now we come into the six months of the year that make people want to live here.  A lot of weeding chores have been piling up!  And the neighborhood can resume its spring schedule of outdoor dinners and relaxing on the porch with drinks.

Own goal

It looks as though the Obamacare software simulated a denial-of-service attack on itself, through clumsy architecture.

These are not people we should let creep closer to a monopoly on anything critical to our lives.