Claude Shannon

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Today would have been Claude Shannon‘s 100th birthday. What did Claude Shannon do? Quite a bit:

Claude Elwood Shannon (April 30, 1916 – February 24, 2001) was an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer known as “the father of information theory”.[1][2]

Shannon is noted for having founded information theory with a landmark paper that he published in 1948. He is perhaps equally well known for founding digital circuit design theory in 1937, when, as a 21-year-old master’s degree student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he wrote his thesis demonstrating that electrical applications of Boolean algebra could construct any logical, numerical relationship.[3] Shannon contributed to the field of cryptanalysis for national defense during World War II, including his basic work on codebreaking and secure telecommunications.

The One About Rabbits

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

What is the evidence that people despair in The West? Bruce Charlton offers this:

Two bits of evidence came to mind while thinking about Richard Adams’s great fantasy novel Watership Down (1972) — the one about rabbits. If you have not yet read it: you should give it a try: I will try to avoid spoilers.

During their adventures, the heroes come across two contrasting dystopias: Cowslip’s Warren, which superficially seems like a hedonic, lotus-eater’s paradise; and Efrafa which embodies military virtue of courage, loyalty and organization.

But although both warrens have good qualities, each has a sign that something is very wrong, and indeed intolerably, fatally wrong — and these are signs we see in the modern West.

In Cowslip’s Warren the ‘poet’ rabbit is a kind of degenerate who tells ‘decadent’ stories of despair, paradox, unattainable yearning, the beauty of horror — and the traditional encouraging stories of the rabbit’s trickster-god El-Ahrairah are regarded by the Warren with embarrassment as being childish, simplistic, outdated.

Something is deeply wrong when the creative artists communicate inversions of the Good.

And in Efrafa, for all the efficiency and technical capability, the does (female rabbits) have stopped reproducing (by reabsorbing their kittens): a sign of their profound stress and despair.

I feel this way about our civilization. Our most admired and accomplished art is despairing, our women have (all but) stopped reproducing.

Whatever else is happening is pretty much irrelevant: these signs indicate extreme, underlying despair — which despair is what underpins our self-hatred, our inability to defend our values, the active but denied pursuit of cultural suicide.

Seb Lester

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Seb Lester is an artist and designer who has fallen in love with calligraphy and now makes videos of his handiwork:

In the catbird seat

Friday, April 29th, 2016

If you don’t like cat videos, you may like this one — of a bald eagle bringing a cat to feed its eaglets:

The Last Days of Target Canada

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Target Canada failed big:

Roughly two years from that date, Target Canada filed for creditor protection, marking the end of its first international foray and one of the most confounding sagas in Canadian corporate history. The debacle cost the parent company billions of dollars, sullied its reputation and put roughly 17,600 people out of work. Target’s arrival was highly anticipated by consumers and feared by rival retailers. The chain, whose roots stretch back to 1902, had perfected its retail strategy and grown into a US$70-billion titan in its home country. Target was a careful, analytical and efficient organization with a highly admired corporate culture. The corporation’s entry into Canada was uncharacteristically bold—not just for Target, but for any retailer. Under Steinhafel, the company paid $1.8 billion for the leases to the entire Zellers chain in 2011 and formulated a plan to open 124 locations by the end of 2013. Not only that, but the chain expected to be profitable within its first year of operations.

(Hat tip to David Foster.)

The Elbonian Zombie Virus

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Elbonian Zombie Virus is a thought experiment of Scott Adams’:

Imagine that the tiny nation of Elbonia suffers a Zombie Virus outbreak. Luckily, the virus does not spread easily, but prolonged personal contact with an infected zombie increases the odds of transmission. Once infected, the Elbonian becomes a zombie killer. As it turns out, most people are immune to the virus. Over 99% of the public have no risk of catching it. But 1% is far too many zombie killers.

Imagine we have no way to detect this Elbonian Zombie Virus infection before symptoms occur. And let’s say that the problem started in Elbonia and so far has not gone beyond its borders. There is no cure for the Elbonian Zombie Virus. So what would world health organizations do?

For starters, they would quarantine the entire nation of Elbonia to limit the damage. This is obviously unfair to all uninfected Elbonians but it is also the only practical way to protect the rest of the world. Once the quarantine is in place, the professionals can get to work on a cure.

Now here’s the interesting part. What is the functional difference between the Elbonian Zombie Virus and radical islamic terrorism?

Lawyers and Salesmen

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

One of the things the Z Man has learned in life is that the salesmen for a company will be the most honest with you about their company:

That’s not to imply that salesmen are all honest in their sales pitch. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about life inside the company. Ask a sales guy, who is not selling you something, about his boss and his co-workers and he’ll usually give you the unvarnished truth. Often, they are the guys who know the flaws best, because they have to work around them to make deals.

That’s the thing with sales people.  They work for themselves, even though they take a salary and are employees. Some portion of their pay, maybe the bulk of it, is derived from their performance as a salesman. All sales people have quotas and have to produce. Otherwise, they get fired. There’s no hiding in the bureaucracy for them. That means self-deception is not of any use to them. They have to know the defects of their firm and its products in order to mitigate them in front of clients.

The weird thing about salesmen is they never assume they are the cleverest guy in the room. Paranoia is a healthy trait in sales, as there are a million little things that can scuttle a deal. Working from the assumption that there could very well be someone in the room who knows something you don’t is a good way to avoid surprises. You ask more questions and you listen better. If you’re walking around thinking you are Wile E. Coyote, a safe could fall on your head.

I used to fish with a guy who made his living selling cars. He got into it as a way to pay for college. He would sell cars on the weekend and at night, while going to school during the day. When he finished college, he found that he could make a better living selling cars than anything else so he kept selling cars. Eventually he settled into selling BMW’s and Mercedes. He was able to make a nice, middle-class living at it, without too much stress.

Making small talk one day I mentioned something about lawyers and he laughed and told me that lawyers are his best clients, followed by stock brokers. I naturally assumed it was because they made a lot of money and had expensive tastes. That was not it at all. He told me that overselling a lawyer was one of the easiest things to do in car sales. They walk around thinking they know everything and so they fall for every car sales trick in the book.

So, where’s he going with this?

I’ve been thinking about this watching the political ructions. Donald Trump is a salesman and a very good one so he is doing extremely well as a novice politician, because politics is about sales. His competitors are mostly lawyers, who never took him seriously, because they are lawyers and smart. Everyone knows this so surely the smart lawyers will have no problem with the sales guy and his cheap theatrics.

The commentariat is similarly full of lawyers and people who went to law school.


Now, the guys in the sales department have a different experience. They also have high verbal skills, but they spend their days losing many more deals than they win. They face the reality of their limitations every day. They also know that if they don’t sell, they don’t eat. There’s no failing up in their business. It’s why the sales guys can feast on lawyers. They have no illusions about themselves.

It’s another reason to wonder if the recipe for the managerial state contains ingredients that poison the stew. Failing up is a feature of the managerial class. They go from one failure to the next, rarely ever answering for their blunders. The economic team that advised Obama on the stimulus, for example, landed cushy positions in the academy. Tim Geithner is making millions influence peddling for Wall Street. This despite being 100% wrong about in their predictions.

A system based on mediocrities walking around convinced they are the smartest people in the room will inevitably become unstable.

Weapon Laws in Germany

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Jörg Sprave of The Slingshot Channel is famous for his crazy improvised weapons, but he also collects real weapons, which isn’t nearly as illegal in Germany as an American might imagine:

No roads, no problem

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Lockheed Martin recently promoted their Hybrid Airship with the motto, No roads, no problem!

Near the end of the video, they share some stats:

  • 10′x10′x60′ Cargo Bay
  • 21 Metric Ton Capacity
  • Room for 19 Passengers

For context, a “small” modern cargo aircraft like the Boeing 737-700C might have a cargo capacity of 3,800 cu ft and 18.2 metric tons.

I’m surprised that the airship’s cargo capacity is so high by weight but so low by volume.

The hybrid advantage, they argue, is that it’s faster than sea or land transport, but more fuel-efficient than other forms of air transport.

Hybrid Airship Advantage

That and they require little to no infrastructure.

Why Iron Is the Most Underrated Factor in Health

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Mangan explains why iron is the most underrated factor in health, summarizing his book, Dumping Iron:

In the course of our long evolutionary history, iron has not always been abundant in our food; for this reason, as well as its critical necessity, our bodies have evolved mechanisms to grab iron and hold on to it. But we have not evolved any way of getting rid of it.

When humans are growing, they require plenty of iron for their development, but after maturity, the iron accumulates, often to high enough levels to damage cells and lead to disease.

Iron is a reactive element. When exposed to air and water, it rusts, and when inside our bodies, it can react with components of our cells — lipids, proteins, cell walls — and damage them. That’s how it leads to illness and premature aging.

Paycheck to Paycheck

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Since 2013, the federal reserve board has conducted a survey of American consumers. One question makes it clear just how many middle-class Americans are living paycheck to paycheck:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.

Americans are financially fragile. Neal Gabler calls this embarrassing condition financial impotence:

A 2014 Bankrate survey, echoing the Fed’s data, found that only 38 percent of Americans would cover a $1,000 emergency-room visit or $500 car repair with money they’d saved. Two reports published last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts found, respectively, that 55 percent of households didn’t have enough liquid savings to replace a month’s worth of lost income, and that of the 56 percent of people who said they’d worried about their finances in the previous year, 71 percent were concerned about having enough money to cover everyday expenses. A similar study conducted by Annamaria Lusardi of George Washington University, Peter Tufano of Oxford, and Daniel Schneider, then of Princeton, asked individuals whether they could “come up with” $2,000 within 30 days for an unanticipated expense. They found that slightly more than one-quarter could not, and another 19 percent could do so only if they pawned possessions or took out payday loans. The conclusion: Nearly half of American adults are “financially fragile” and “living very close to the financial edge.” Yet another analysis, this one led by Jacob Hacker of Yale, measured the number of households that had lost a quarter or more of their “available income” in a given year — income minus medical expenses and interest on debt — and found that in each year from 2001 to 2012, at least one in five had suffered such a loss and couldn’t compensate by digging into savings.

Credit cards are just too tempting:

If you ask economists to explain this state of affairs, they are likely to finger credit-card debt as a main culprit. Long before the Great Recession, many say, Americans got themselves into credit trouble. According to an analysis of Federal Reserve and TransUnion data by the personal-finance site ValuePenguin, credit-card debt stood at about $5,700 per household in 2015. Of course, this figure factors in all the households with a balance of zero. About 38 percent of households carried some debt, according to the analysis, and among those, the average was more than $15,000. In recent years, while the number of people holding credit-card debt has been decreasing, the average debt for those households carrying a balance has been on the rise.

More disturbing stats:

The personal savings rate peaked at 13.3 percent in 1971 before falling to 2.6 percent in 2005. As of last year, the figure stood at 5.1 percent, and according to McClary, nearly 30 percent of American adults don’t save any of their income for retirement.

“If you want to have financial security,” says Brad Klontz, “it is 100 percent on you.”

One thing economists adduce to lessen this responsibility is that credit represents a sea change from the old economic system, when financial decisions were much more constrained, limiting the sort of trouble that people could get themselves into — a sea change for which most people were ill-prepared.

It is ironic that as financial products have become increasingly sophisticated, theoretically giving individuals more options to smooth out the bumps in their lives, something like the opposite seems to have happened, at least for many. Indeed, Annamaria Lusardi and her colleagues found that, in general, the more sophisticated a country’s credit and financial markets, the worse the problem of financial insecurity for its citizens. Why? Lusardi argues that as the financial world has grown more complex, our knowledge of finances has not kept pace. Basically, a good many Americans are “financially illiterate,” and this illiteracy correlates highly with financial distress. A 2011 study she and a colleague conducted measuring knowledge of fundamental financial principles (compound interest, risk diversification, and the effects of inflation) found that 65 percent of Americans ages 25 to 65 were financial illiterates.

Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey

Monday, April 25th, 2016

James Lacey designed the perfect course on the Peloponnesian War for his students at the Marine Corps War College — only to realize that no one learned or remembered much of anything. Then he completely redesigned the course to use wargaming in the classroom, and the results were amazing:

I selected Fran Diaz’s Polis: Fight for the Hegemony, because, unlike many games, it has a heavy economic and diplomatic element. After dividing the seminars into teams, I was able to run five simultaneous games.

The results were amazing.

As every team plotted their strategic “ends,” students soon realized that neither side had the resources — “means” — to do everything they wanted. Strategic decisions quickly became a matter of tradeoffs, as the competitors struggled to find the “ways” to secure sufficient “means” to achieve their objectives (“ends”). For the first time, students were able to examine the strategic options of the Peloponnesian War within the strictures that limited the actual participants in that struggle.

Remarkably, four of the five Athenian teams actually attacked Syracuse on Sicily’s east coast! As they were all aware that such a course had led to an Athenian disaster 2,500 years before, I queried them about their decision. Their replies were the same: Each had noted that the Persians were stirring, which meant there was a growing threat to Athens’ supply of wheat from the Black Sea. As there was an abundance of wheat near Syracuse, each Athenian team decided to secure it as a second food source (and simultaneously deny it to Sparta and its allies) in the event the wheat from the Black Sea was lost to them. Along the way, two of the teams secured Pylos so as to raise helot revolts that would damage the Spartan breadbasket. Two of the teams also ended revolts in Corcyra, which secured that island’s fleet for Athenian purposes, and had the practical effect of blockading Corinth. So, it turns out there were a number of good strategic reasons for Athens to attack Syracuse. Who knew? Certainly not any War College graduate over the past few decades.

All of these courses of action were thoroughly discussed by each team, as were Spartan counter moves. For the first time in my six years at the Marine Corps War College, I was convinced that the students actually understood the range of strategies and options Thucydides wrote about. In the following days, I was stopped dozens of times by students who wanted discuss other options they might have employed, and, even better, to compare their decisions to what actually happened. A number of students told me they were still thinking about various options and decisions weeks later. I assure you that no one even spent even a car ride home thinking about my Thucydides lectures.


For six or more hours at a sitting, classes remain focused on the strategic choices before them, as they try to best an enemy as quick-thinking and adaptive as they are. Every turn presents strategic options and dilemmas that have to be rapidly discussed and decided on. As there are never enough resources, time and again hard choices have to be made. Every war college administrator can wax eloquently about their school’s mission to enhance their students’ critical thinking skills. But they then subject those same students to a year of mind-numbing classroom seminars that rarely, if ever, allow them to practice those skills that each college claims as its raison d’etre. Well, wargaming, in addition to helping students comprehend the subject material, also allows them an unparalleled opportunity to repeatedly practice decisive critical thinking. Moreover, it does so in a way where the effects of both good and bad decisions are almost immediately apparent.

At the end of each wargame, students walked away with a new appreciation of the historical circumstances of the period and the events they had read about and discussed in class. And even though all wargames are an abstract of actual events, I am sure that no student exposed to historical gaming will ever again read about the Peloponnesian War without thinking about Sicily’s wheat, the crucial importance of holding the Isthmus of Corinth, or what could have been done with a bit more Persian silver in the coffers of one side or the other’s treasury.

Why You Can’t Argue with the New Left

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Arnold Kling recommends Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, which profiles a number of continental Europeans whose names are unfamiliar to most Americans today:

Although few of us are conversant with the likes of Theodoro Adorno, Gyorgy Lukacs, and Slavoj Zizek, reading about them makes one realize how much of an imprint they have left on contemporary college campuses and even on the approach to politics taken by Barack Obama.

A major theme of Fools is that the New Left evolved a set of intellectual tactical moves against their opponents. These included creating a false left-right spectrum, delegitimizing other points of view, indicting capitalism and tradition for all wrongs while being vague about alternatives, and using Newspeak to present authoritarianism as a defense of freedom and human rights.

The Reactionary Mind

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Ross Douthat guides fearful New York Times readers into the reactionary mind:

Over the last year, America’s professional intelligentsia has been placed under the microscope in several interesting ways.

First, a group of prominent social psychologists released a paper quantifying and criticizing their field’s overwhelming left-wing tilt. Then Jonathan Haidt, one of the paper’s co-authors, highlighted research showing that the entire American academy has become more left-wing since the 1990s. Then finally a new book by two conservative political scientists, “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University,” offered a portrait of how right-wing academics make their way in a left-wing milieu. (The answer: very carefully, and more carefully than in the past.)

Meanwhile, over the same period, there has been a spate of media attention for the online movement known as “neoreaction,” which in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs.

I suspect these two phenomena are connected — the official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts.

A strange crew of online autodidacts? Touché.

Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.

Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post-national utopia with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.


Maybe one answer is to avoid systemization, to welcome a reactionary style that’s artistic, aphoristic and religious, while rejecting the idea of a reactionary blueprint for our politics. From Eliot and Waugh and Kipling to Michel Houellebecq, there’s a reactionary canon waiting to be celebrated as such, rather than just read through a lens of grudging aesthetic respect but ideological disapproval.

A phrase from the right-wing Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila could serve as such a movement’s mission statement. His goal, he wrote, was not a comprehensive political schema but a “reactionary patchwork.” Which might be the best way for reaction to become something genuinely new: to offer itself, not as ideological rival to liberalism and conservatism, but as a vision as strange and motley as reality itself.

The trouble with books

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Nick Szabo explains the trouble with books:

Most readers don’t want to spend most of their time reading verbose works by single author, when a greater variety of more relevant and thoughtfully concise works are available from a much larger pool of thinkers. Prior to the Internet they had much less choice: books were just the way educated people learned and taught. (And many people still believe that reading and writing books is the sine quo non of being educated, just as many Europeans in 1500 still lauded the superiority of scribal methods and scholastic thought).

Magazines and newspapers involve smaller form factors, but they still draw from a very small pool of authors. These authors can only write in detail about a wider variety of subjects by pretending to know things that they don’t: they take human institutions far more complicated than a single human can possibly comprehend and boil them down to a series of hypersimplified theories, what in less authoritative contexts we’d call ideologies or conspiracy theories.

Instead of being forced to read a vast number of words each from a small number and variety of authors, already widely read by many other people (making your reading of them often quite intellectually redundant), on the Internet you can read much less per-author text (and thus, potentially at least, far more thought out per word) from a much greater number and variety of authors.

Ideally you’d have someone reading widely for you and curating a list of good articles — or even presenting just the most insightful excerpts.