Why Trump Leads

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Dan McLaughlin grudgingly admires Trump’s ability to disrupt, unsettle, and exploit the primary system:

Let’s start with ambiguity. Trump has been flirting with electoral politics so long, he was asked in an interview with Rona Barrett in 1980 about his possible interest in running for president someday, and Larry King asked him at the 1988 GOP convention if he would have accepted an invitation to be George H.W. Bush’s running mate. He joined H. Ross Perot’s “Reform Party” in 1999 and even ran briefly in its primaries for the 2000 election before bowing out and watching the nomination go to Pat Buchanan.

Trump zigged—he declared that he identified as a Democrat as recently as 2004, donated significant sums of money to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats despised by rank-and-file Republicans, and had glowing words for Hillary and President Obama. He zagged—he confronted Obama so directly over his birthplace in 2011 that Obama felt compelled to finally publicly release his Hawaiian birth certificate, and he endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries, saying that if Romney were the nominee, Trump would not stage his own third-party bid in 2012.

Given his long and erratic history, loose party loyalty, and propensity to bluff, Trump’s competitors for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination were quite reasonably conditioned to view talk of a Trump 2016 campaign, and even his June 16 announcement, with uncertainty: was it another publicity stunt? A run-up to a Perot-style third party campaign? A stalking horse for some hidden agenda? A personal vendetta against Jeb Bush? Or a real effort to win the Republican nomination?

Unable to discern Trump’s intentions in May, June, and July, his opponents were tentative in reaching decisions and putting them into action. To the extent that he maintains the third-party threat to this day, it provides him a screen of ambiguity that protects him against attacks other candidates would have to face. Nobody worries that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush will leave the party in a snit and launch a third-party bid; Trump’s credible threat of doing so makes primary opponents think twice about attacking him in ways they would not hesitate to attack loyal Republicans whose intent to abide by primary outcomes is clear.

There’s much more.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)


Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

SpaceX’s ORBCOMM-2 mission has placed 11 satellites into orbit — and then returned to land on, well, land:

The Point of Money

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Spandrell reminds us that the point of money is to be a cognitive aid for remembering favors:

I did something for you, if I am not to be a sucker I’ll want to get something back from you eventually. So grab me that shiny shell you use as a wristband, so I can remember. David Graeber made a similar point on his famous book about Debt, which is pretty good if you get the fact that Graeber is a lame communist and adjust your skimming accordingly.

The problem is that this tech we use to remember favors leads us to spent huge amount of valuable labor in manufacturing shell accessories, beads, mining metal and wasting it in making coins. Whole empires were built, entire nations killed and enslaved in the process of looking for mines where perfectly good metal could be extracted to waste in making little coins with the face of a king to distribute so people can remember who made a favor to whom. That’s how it works though.

I am endlessly fascinated by this kind of evolutionary process where everybody runs around doing completely pointless stuff which nobody benefits from.

First Totally Unserious SF Film

Monday, December 21st, 2015

J.G. Ballard called Star Wars the first totally unserious s-f film:

Although slightly biased, I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. S-f has been one of the few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change — social, technological and environmental — and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias. Why, then, has it translated so uneasily into the cinema? Unlike the western, which long ago took over the literary form and now exists in its own right, the s-f film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. S-f cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.

The most popular form of s-f — space fiction — has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year in Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr Strangelove, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella and Solaris — and the brave failures such as The Thing, Seconds and The Man who Fell to Earth — have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit and fantasy.

With Star Wars the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, towards huge but empty spectacles where special effects — like the brilliantly designed space vehicles and their interiors in both Star Wars and 2001 — preside over derivative ideas and unoriginal plots, as in some massively financed stage musical where the sets and costumes are lavish but there are no tunes. I can’t help feeling that in both these films the spectacular sets are the real subject matter, and that original and imaginative ideas — until now science fiction’s chief claim to fame — are regarded by their makers as secondary, unimportant and even, possibly, distracting.

Star Wars in particular seems designed to appeal to that huge untapped audience of people who have never read or been particularly interested in s-f but have absorbed its superficial ideas — space ships, ray guns, blue corridors, the future as anything with a fin on it — from comic strips, TV shows like Star Trek and Thunderbirds, and the iconography of mass merchandising.


In many ways it is the ultimate home movie, in which Lucas goes back into his toy cupboard and plays with all his boyhood fantasies, fitting together a collection of stuffed toys, video games and plastic spaceships into this ten-year-old’s extravaganza, back to the days, as he himself says, when he ‘dreamed about running away and having adventures that no one else has ever had’.

People, not Commercial Organizations or Chains of Command

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Some wisdom from Calvin & Muad’Dib:

People, not commercial organizations or chains of command, are what make great civilizations work. Every civilization depends upon the quality of the individuals it produces.

Calivn and Muad'Dib People Make Civilizations Work

If you over-organize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness — they cannot work and their civilization collapses.

Horrible Bleakness

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

I haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet, but I suspect this is how many people feel right now:

Bloom County Star Wars Meaning

Star Wars Toy Commercial

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

The Force is with us — and us too:

Travis Tomasie on Mythbusters

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters try to shoot and reload rapidly. Then they bring in an expert:

Ken Burns’ Galactic Civil War

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Ken Burns’ Galactic Civil War:

The Machiavelli of Maryland

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

People contact Edward Luttwak with unusual requests:

The prime minister of Kazakhstan wants to find a way to remove ethnic Russians from a city on his northern border; a major Asian government wants a plan to train its new intelligence services; an Italian chemical company wants help settling an asbestos lawsuit with a local commune; a citizens’ group in Tonga wants to scare away Japanese dolphin poachers from its shores; the London Review of Books wants a piece on the Armenian genocide; a woman is having a custody battle over her children in Washington DC — can Luttwak “reason” with her husband? And that is just in the last 12 months.


For the past 30 years, Luttwak has run his own strategic consultancy — a sort of one-man security firm — that provides bespoke “solutions” to some very intractable problems. In his long career, Luttwak has been asked by the president of Mexico to help eliminate a street gang that was burning tourist buses in the city of Mexicali; the Dalai Lama has consulted him about relations with China, European governments have hired him to root out al-Qaida operatives, and the US army has commissioned him to update its counterinsurgency manual. He earns around $1m a year from his “jobs”. “It’s always important to get paid,” he likes to insist. “It protects you from the liberal problem of good intentions and from being called an intriguer.”

It is tempting to imagine Luttwak as a man exiled to the wrong place and time, whose fate, like a character in Nabokov, has been reduced from old-world brilliance to something less grand in 21st-century America. It is not hard, after all, to picture him conniving at the Congress of Vienna, or plotting murders in the Medici court. He has the air of the seasoned counsellor to the prince who is dispatched to deal with the Mongols and returns alone, on horseback, clutching advantageous terms on parchment.

But only in America was the career of Edward Luttwak possible. The perpetually renewable reservoir of naivety at the highest levels of the US government has been good for business. During the cold war, Luttwak was often identified as a peculiar American species known as the “defence intellectual”. These were academics who served power, who were often impatient with democratic procedure, and who enraptured audiences — from thinktanks to military academies — with their elaborate projector-slide frescoes of nuclear apocalypse.

Read the whole thing.

Jerry Shot First

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Jerry Miculek has some fun shooting a replica DL-44 blaster — based, of course, on the Mauser “broomhandle” C96:

Libertarian Star Wars

Friday, December 18th, 2015

The folks at Reason have some fun with their own libertarian Star Wars parody:

The Microcomplaint

Friday, December 18th, 2015

It was once considered unbecoming to moan about trifling ordeals:

Now, in a seismic shift for the moral culture, abetted by technology, we tolerate and even encourage the “microcomplaint”: the petty, petulant kvetch about the quotidian.

Complaining has historically been deemed permissible when reserved for the ears of significant others, family members or close friends. A simple hypothesis, then, would be that those who gripe online are simply lonely in the physical world, lacking intimates with whom to vent, or are chronic malcontents. But lots of rich, popular celebrities also do it.


The smartphone in particular has facilitated extemporaneous caviling. Irritations that the passage of time may have soothed can, in the moment, be immediately expressed to an audience. Often these complaints take the form of a narrative developing in real time: the talkative taxi driver, the hostile airline ticket clerk, the interminable security line, the malodorous seatmate and crying baby. Such threads frequently pick up steam as the audience validates or shares the narrator’s posts; the nuisances others must contend with can make for excellent vicarious entertainment, and accreting Likes tend to fuel the microcomplainer.


In this way, the microcomplaint functions as a kind of reverse boast: You may be celebrating a new job or engagement with a Michelin-starred dinner, but look at how much I have suffered today — I’m deserving of more attention.


Those who were offended in an “honor culture,” where one’s reputation is paramount, once resorted to direct retaliation; think of duels or blood feuds. This vengeful climate eventually gave way in the West to a “dignity culture,” in which people consider themselves to have intrinsic worth that cannot be devalued by others (“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”).

When conflict cannot be brushed aside in a dignity culture, the affronted attempt to compromise or turn to the legal system rather than seek out violent recompense. (Long before ignoring personal attacks became the prevailing mode, Jesus had a few ideas about turning the other cheek, too.)

Gary Cooper, Tony Soprano would argue, combines the best of both worlds: He fights back when necessary — he is “strong” — yet never betrays any feelings of hurt — he remains “silent.”

The authors of the paper assert that we are now in a culture that valorizes victimhood. “The moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights,” they write, which “increases the incentive to publicize grievances.” Instead of pursuing violent or legal confrontation or letting the insult slide, the victim now appeals for support from third parties while “emphasizing one’s own oppression,” often through social media.

Walter Carlos’s Clockwork Orange

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

For his birthday, we should all listen to some lovely, lovely Ludwig Van. Walter Carlos’s Clockwork Orange famously included an early-synthesizer version of Beethoven’s Ninth:

It’s a sin, using Ludwig van like that.

A Voter’s Guide to Thinking

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Scott Adams provides a voter’s guide to thinking:

1. If you are comparing Plan A to Plan B, you might be doing a good job of thinking. But if you are comparing Plan A to an imaginary situation in which there are no tradeoffs in life, you are not thinking.

2. If you see quotes taken out of context, and you form an opinion anyway, that’s probably not thinking. If you believe you need no further context because there is only one imaginable explanation for the meaning of the quotes, you might have a poor imagination. Sometimes a poor imagination feels a lot like knowledge, but it’s closer to the opposite.

3. If a debate lends itself to estimates of cost (in money or human suffering) and you aren’t willing to offer an estimate in support of your opinion, you don’t yet have an opinion.

4. If you are sure you know how a leader performed during his or her tenure, and you don’t know how someone else would have performed in the same situation, you don’t actually know anything. It just feels like you do.

5. If something reminds you of something else (such as Hitler, to pick one example) that doesn’t mean you are thinking. That just means something reminded you of something. A strong association of that type can prevent you from thinking, but it is not itself a component of reason.

6. Analogies are not an element of reason. Analogies are good for explaining things to people who are new to a topic. If I am busy as a beaver, that does not imply that I also build dams by gnawing on wood. It just means I’m busy.

7. If you think your well-informed and reasoned opinions as a voter are bringing up the average, let me introduce you to the 100% of other voters who believe they are bringing up the average as well.

8. If your opinion is based on your innate ability to predict the future, you might be employing more magical thinking than reason. The exceptions would be the people who use data to predict the future, such as Nate Silver. That stuff is credible albeit imperfect by nature. Your imagination is less reliable.