All Hallows’ Eve

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

Who would appreciate storytelling more?

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Country music may not be popular with African-Americans, but it is popular with Africans:

Think about it. More than any other American popular music, country music tells a story. And who would appreciate storytelling more than a people who come from an oral storytelling tradition. In Africa, radio beats television in popularity and availability, so what’s important on radio is what’s important to Africa.


Henry Makhoka heads programming for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s oldest and largest radio station. Makhoka says the allure of country music in Africa is its iconic characters — the gamblers and the highway men, the handwringing mothers and the cock-sure sons, the Rubys, the Lucilles, the Joleens, the grievous angels and the folks who just ain’t no good. These are the characters whose stories Kenyans identify with more than anything that smells like teen spirit.

(Hat tip to HBD Chick.)

It is essential to take into account what one already has

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis gives some advice about time phasing:

If it is the purpose of the study to recommend procurement and operation changes, it is often essential to take into account what one already has, and important to consider what one may want to have in the distant future. The recommended system should, therefore, consider the possibility of exploiting those things which one has and of having a salvage value for future systems. Also it sometimes makes a real difference exactly how the funds are to be disbursed on a year by year basis. While the Systems Analyst should not get into all the headaches of the executive, he should explicitly consider, if at all possible, everything which is important to his recommendations rather than make vague remarks about using or deferring to military or executive judgment.

A picket is just a metaphorical fence

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

I just got the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War, at Audible’s latest 2-for-1 sale, and it reminded me of a word that comes up all the time in Civil War writings — picket. When I first came across the Civil-War use of picket years ago, I was confused. They obviously didn’t mean a white picket fence. Did they mean a metaphorical fence? Or did the men carry stakes, like medieval archers, to build up anti-cavalry defenses?

Reading military history can be frustrating this way, because it’s almost always written for an audience that already knows quite a bit about the subject, rather than for curious boys. Anyway, it turns out a picket is just a metaphorical fence, with no stakes involved. It also turns out that the word was really, really popular during the Civil War, and not before:

Picket Use Over Time

Give him all the freedom that physics, engineering, and economics will allow

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis briefly considers unconventional tactics:

There are two parts to this, the enemy’s and your own. For the enemy, you are very interested in examining whether in plugging up one hole you have forced him to another hold which may be equally disastrous to you. That is, you have to examine the recommended system and ask, “What can the enemy do to circumvent it?” In doing this examination one must give him all the freedom that physics, engineering and economics will allow.

(We have deliberately left out social and political restraints. In the first pass at a problem one looks at capabilities and not intentions. While one may wish or need to modify his results to take account of such constraints on the enemy’s behavior, it is often very hard to do this in a reasonable fashion. Usually, trying to exploit such constraints mean dealing in Low Confidence measures. These of course can be useful. It is, however usually much more important to consider possible social and political restraints on one’s own behavior than on the enemy’s. Unless he explicitly and carefully considers such limitations, the analyst may find again that he is really dealing in Low Confidence measures even though from the viewpoint of technical capabilities it may look like a High Confidence measure.)

All too often one finds studies which are designed against a specific enemy tactic rather than against the enemy himself.

There are strong psychological reasons for this. As long as a system has obvious holes, there is no reason for the enemy or us to consider subtle tactics. However, by eliminating these holes one has, in effect, forced the enemy to try to be clever. Under these circumstances he may consider tactics which once seemed far-fetched and improbable. Unfortunately, one may have to overcome a great deal of mental inertia (one’s own as well as others) before one can take unaccustomed threats seriously, early enough to take effective action.

For our own side, as we mentioned before, the major objective of the Systems Analyst is not to analyze a given system but to design a system which will fulfill certain objectives satisfactorily. In doing this, he may also have to consider unorthodox or unconventional tactics in addition to recommending the development or procurement of new types of equipment.

Your politics may go dormant for a second or four

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

Lazarus demonstrates the difficulty, if not impossibility, of telling an anti-tech, anti-futurist, anti-inherited-wealth dystopic story in a visual medium:

It exemplifies a revised (rebooted?) version of François Truffaut’s maxim about the conundrum of antiwar war movies: they are too exciting and filled with triumph to convince the audience of war’s inhumanity.

Like the 1980s British comic Judge Dredd or the Hunger Games movies, the very nature of visually representing a dystopia compounds the problem, because the aesthetic requirements of the genre mask its political urgency. The ruling class, no matter how vile, will simply look cooler than the ruled. Exclusively textual depictions of dystopias like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We allow appropriately wary minds to create fittingly forbidding images. We don’t have the same freedom with comics, movies, TV, or video games.

You can approach the series completely in sync with its political commitments, but when Forever Carlyle shakes off a grizzly rifle shot to the ribs and vaults over a tank like a super-powered Simone Biles, your politics may go dormant for a second or four. This tension makes for good entertainment — which Lazarus is — but can Lazarus’s creators really say they’re offering an earnest warning about neo-feudalism when the series makes the body armor look so good?

I don’t blame Rucka and Lark. The difficulty is baked into the genre. It’s extremely hard to guess what a truly political dystopia might look like. Typically, when an underclass triumphs against the existing order the story ends. There’s no blueprint for what comes next. And all too often, in life and in art, what comes after dystopia is more dystopia.

It is desirable that this limiting be done intelligently and not arbitrarily

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

The toy problem presented in Techniques of Systems Analysis couldn’t carefully examine mixed forces:

One of the most serious and common errors is that of arbitrarily concentrating the study on only one kind of bomb, one kind of plane, one kind of airfield, etc. Actually, of course, very few large organizations ever use only one type of equipment for all of their purposes. There is always a tendency to use specialized equipment for specialized problems. For the military too, it turns out that only by using a large number of different types of equipment and tactics can one really have the flexibility to meet effectively the many different objectives and circumstances. It is also very important either to consider a large variety of measures simultaneously or not to try to make one single measure handle all cases. While it is almost always necessary to limit the parts of the study that receive detailed treatment, it is desirable that this limiting be done intelligently and not arbitrarily.

Barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror

Friday, October 27th, 2017

It was not a good idea that somehow went wrong or withered away, Martin Amis explains:

It was a very bad idea from the outset, and one forced into life — or the life of the undead — with barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror. The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make “a total claim.”

The following is from “the secret archive,” published as “The Unknown Lenin” (1996), and the entry is dated March 1922: “It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) …” At this point the unversed reader might pause to wonder how the sentence will go forward. Something like “pursue all avenues of amelioration and relief,” perhaps?

But no. This is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of “a party of a new type,” who continues: “… carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy. … Precisely at this moment we must give battle to [the clergy] in the most decisive and merciless manner and crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come. … The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better.” Church records show that 1,962 monks, 2,691 priests and 3,447 nuns were killed in that year alone. Religion, you see, was part of human nature, so the Bolsheviks were obliged to suppress it in all its forms (including Islam and Buddhism).


Western intellectuals deserve their usual share of the obloquy. As one historian of Russia put it, it is to the intellectuals that we turn for “real prowess of wrong-headedness.” But it wasn’t just the pundits, the writers (H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw) and the philosophers (J.P. Sartre, A. J. Ayer) who swallowed the Moscow line; so did historians, sociologists, politicians, and even businessmen. To its supporters the allure of the Communist Party was twofold. The secondary appeal was that it gave you the (not quite delusive) impression that you were playing your part in world events; the primary appeal was that the program looked wonderful on paper, and spoke to the optimism and idealism of many of the most generous hearts and minds.

It was vaguely understood that there had been some loss of life: the terror and famine under Lenin, the Civil War, forced collectivization (“Ten millions,” Stalin said to Churchill, holding up both palms, in the Kremlin in 1942), the burgeoning system of state slavery known as the gulag (created under Lenin), the Great Purge of 1937-38.All that could be set aside, for now, because (a) revolutions are always violent, and (b) the ends supposedly justify the means.

As for the first point, the French revolutionary terror lasted from June 1793 to July 1794, and claimed more than 16,000 victims, no more than a busy couple of weeks for the Bolsheviks (and imagine if Robespierre had kept at it until 1830). As for the second point, well, there is a counterproposition: Means shape ends, and tend to poison them. We all know, now, what we think of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Anyway, the means were all the Soviet citizen was ever going to get. Western doublethink and selective blindness on this question is a very rich field; the wisest and most stylish guide to it is “Reflections on a Ravaged Century” (2000), by Robert Conquest, to whom we will necessarily return.

Conquest. Conquest. That name sounds familiar.

He continues:

The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist. The first consciousness-shifting book was Conquest’s “The Great Terror” (1968). Very soon the samizdat version was circulating in Russia; and freshly enlightened parents would wonder if their growing teenagers were “ready for Conquest” and the attendant shock. Conquest had time to add “The Nation Killers” and “Lenin,” but not long enough to add ”Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps” (1976) — before the translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” was complete in its three volumes (1973-75). This was and is a visionary nonfiction epic written by an artist in the Russian Orthodox, old-regime tradition of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Hereafter the great argument (like the original Marxist idea) had only a vampiric existence — technically dead, but still animate.

For a while anything that could be mistaken for “Red-baiting,” in the United Kingdom at least, was considered bad form, like kicking a man when he was down. About five years later there was a reaction, then an overreaction, then a judgment. Having gone from wondering whether Stalin was “better” than Churchill and Roosevelt, the commentariat was suddenly asking itself whether Stalin was better than Hitler; half a decade after that, the finding of “equivalence” at last gave way to “broad parity.” Equivalence marks the overreaction. Hitler and Stalin were not equivalent.

He must be aware of the need to make it adequate

Friday, October 27th, 2017

The toy problem presented in Techniques of Systems Analysis is obviously limited in terms of scale and detail:

We talked about 20 planes, 2 airfields, etc. Actually, for some questions, one must talk about thousands of planes and hundreds of airfields. One may have to put in all the relevant asymmetries that were discussed in the early portion of Part IV including, for example, details of different capabilities, different targets, geography, etc. This is so obvious that it probably does not pay to dwell on it here. Unfortunately, it is often also not dwelt on where it should be. That is, not only must one be aware of the possibility that his model is inadequate to answer the questions he is asking but he must be aware of the need to make it adequate and not just to make some face saving apologies.

We’ll all end up with extended warranties and after-market undercoating

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

We are witnessing the collision of two megatrends that have permeated our daily lives — the widespread use of video, and persuasion:

The appeal of Khan Academy is immediately obvious to anyone who has encountered barriers in learning, like taking a college class taught by a graduate teaching assistant for whom English was a second language. The website has helped my children for years.

But there are other messages that people want to put in front of us, many aimed at separating us from our cash.

I recently bought my younger daughter a used car. Her current ride, a Ford F150 4×4, had developed rust, which never ends well. So we quickly found a replacement. (Yes, it’s another F150 4×4, but it’s what she likes.)

I wrote a check for the difference between vehicles, but still had to sit down with the dealer’s finance manager.

At one point my daughter asked about the thick, black device that he seemed to be using as a desktop. He told us it was a computer monitor and cost $18,000, and that a third-party sold it to the dealership, not the parent company automaker.

When operational, it will display the different things consumers can add to their car purchases, like warranties and dealer add-ons.

I thought about this, and asked if the display simply showed documents, or video? He answered the latter, and that all buyers will be required to watch it.


Now I knew several things.

The dealership had contracted with a third-party to provide a presentation for each after-market possibility, like warranties, that had the highest probability of success. There’s no doubt that such video presentations, like candidate Trump’s election musings and the videos on Khan Academy, are full of the persuasive language described by Scott Adams.

I’m also certain that this language has been tested in focus groups and used in beta-test situations nationwide to prove its effectiveness. Why else would a dealership shell out almost $20,000 for a display system that will do the same thing the finance manager is supposed to do?

I explained to my daughter that the point of the system was to guarantee that the selling process had the highest chance of success, and to ensure that it wasn’t left to the skill level and whims of each finance officer.

I also told her the eventual goal was to cut headcount, which reduced payroll. I said all of this as we sat with the finance manager filling out forms.

He assured me there was no way to get rid of finance people. The dealership was much too busy.

Those were famous last words from a guy who never presented me the option of an extended warranty on a used vehicle.

That screen, and those videos, are intended to replace him and persuade me.

Technology is bringing the best sales techniques to every situation.

As consumers, if we don’t continually educate ourselves on what we need and what we can decline, we don’t stand a chance.

Meaning we’ll all end up with extended warranties and after-market undercoating.

It is always a mistake to procure something which is not developed

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis revisits some important topics in its concluding chapter:

Research? Development? Procurement? Operation?

The first question to ask is: what kind of recommendation is one trying to make; why are we doing the study? Occasionally a study is done solely for self-education. One simply wanted to know more about the subject. It is probably not right to think of such studies as Systems Analysis, though they can be very valuable. (In our lexicon Systems Analysis means System Design. People who are interested only in analysis will have to find their own word.) Usually though, a study should be sharply affected by whether the question being treated is associated with Research, Development, Procurement or Operation.

Popular and semi-popular opinions to the contrary, the ability to do basic or semi-basic research in this country is not (in an absolute sense) in short supply. In addition, if we compare the cost of most kinds of basic or semi-basic research to other costs of the total defense system, we see that on the whole it is extraordinarily cheap. Ordinarily one can legitimately recommend doing it on very flimsy evidence. That is, one shouldn’t have to show that the research being recommended is likely to be useful, but only that there is a chance that it may be useful. Generally this kind of research should have only the loosest sort of guidance, except for monitoring to see that the people involved are professionally competent and that there are no glaring holes in the overall program.

Development is somewhat more expensive. But once again, one should not have to justify a development program by proving that the item being developed should be procured. One simply tries to carry through, but in more detail, the kind of study that is done before recommending a basic research program. Here one might justify the program on the grounds that there are reasonable (in the case of expensive programs — not improbable) conditions under which this development could be useful. When the issue is crucial, we should only have to indicate that the nature of the problem is such that it is hard to show that the development won’t be useful. In particular, we should do a great deal of development simply to cut down lead time and provide insurance against uncertainty. One wants to be in a position so that if certain events (technical, political, or military) occur, we will be able either to guard against or exploit them. We should be willing to do this, even if the events are rather improbably, if they are important or if the cost of hedging is, relatively speaking, small. Much of the cost of development programs should be put down to giving this kind of flexibility.

To quote a remark made earlier, “It may or may not be a mistake to develop something which is not procured, but it is always a mistake to procure something which is not developed.”

Or referring again to the Time magazine article, it was only because the Navaho cruise missile was being pushed that we had the rocket engines for the ICBM. Actually, many people would have been willing to have a development program for big rocket engines which was not necessarily tied to any system at all. It just seemed very clear that large rocket engines are one of the commodities in which military systems of the future are likely to be interested.

In general, “state-of-the-art” development programs are good things. It turns out to be amazingly easy, ordinarily, to modify and we already developed components. A naive individual might think that if there were two independent programs which had not heard of each other and if at a later date one wanted to combine them into a single overall program, it might be impossible to do this. Sometimes it is, but more often it is not. The important thing is that if one insists on doing only complete system development programs, he will find himself having a much smaller number of marriages of convenience to arrange. Historically, exactly this type of amalgamation oftens turns out to be important. Even if on knows that he wants a complete system he should be cautious in freezing the component design too early. There are a lot of errors made in predicting performance of components and one often achieves his goal faster by first doing bread-board work to answer state-of-the-art questions than by trying to do final design immediately.

The procurement problem is, of course, quite different. Procurement is expensive but has the virtue of involving much shorter time scales. When on has come to the step of being ready to procure something, the environment and context are relatively firm. There may be a lot of uncertainty left, but hopefully both the alternatives and the contingencies are reasonably limited. One should then be able to make just about the kind of study we have indicated in the example. Presumably the analysis should probably be pretty numerical all the way through, i.e., contain practically no qualitative arguments and conjectures except those that involve the kinds of fundamental questions that we necessarily relegate to the sphere of policy and intuitive judgment.

An operational study, of course, is almost completely concerned with detail, but there one has the saving grace of being restricted to current or immediately procurable hardware. For this reason, even though the amount of detail has gone up enormously, the number of alternatives has been correspondingly decreased. However, it is a typical weakness of current operational studies that they do not consider enough alternatives.

There are no decent civil servants, there are no smart cops, there are no loyal first responders out there

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

David Brin doesn’t like the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian message of Lucas’s later Star Wars movies, but he recognizes that even non-propaganda films have their reasons for depicting failing civlizations:

Why do almost no films ever show civilization functioning, institutions doing their jobs, democracy working? The answer is simple: laziness. A storyteller’s job is to keep his or her characters in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film, or 600 pages of a novel. It’s hard to do that if they can dial 911 and get skilled professionals to come to their aid. So you see a panoply of tricks used by directors and authors to deny their characters useful aid. That’s fine, but when the trick is to simply spread the assumption that there are no decent civil servants, there are no smart cops, there are no loyal first responders out there, then that spreads a propaganda message that such things are impossible. It takes real writing to come up with a way of keeping your characters in jeopardy, despite there being skilled professionals who want to help them.

There’s a reason the Western was such a successful genre for so long — and why so many sci-fi and fantasy settings resemble Westerns.

The most important functions of Systems Analysis

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

Even a relatively simple model of two forces attacking and counterattacking presents a large number of alternatives to be studied, Techniques of Systems Analysis notes:

Investigating each one of these and processing them is a major task. It is also a rather useless one because doing things in this way does not lend itself to performing the most important functions of Systems Analysis, such as taking account of uncertainty, doing contingency planning, considering the sensitivity to the model, and most important of all, training one’s own intuition so that one can do a good design job. If these were not enough, there is the final consideration that in anything but a toy problem, this systematic approach would be quite impossible as the number of alternatives is just prohibitive.

Dogs are not super-cooperative wolves

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Dogs are not super-cooperative wolves:

She and her colleagues challenged their canines to a simple task, which other scientists have used on all kinds of brainy animals — chimps, monkeys, parrots, ravens, and even elephants. There’s a food-bearing tray that lies on the other side of their cage, tempting and inaccessible. A string is threaded through rings on the tray, and both of its ends lie within reach of the animals. If an individual grabs an end and pulls, it would just yank the string out and end up with a mouthful of fibers — not food. But if two animals pull on the ends together, the tray slides close, and they get to eat.

All in all, the dogs did terribly. Just one out of eight pairs managed to pull the tray across, and only once out of dozens of trials. By contrast, five out of seven wolf pairs succeeded, on anywhere between 3 and 56 percent of their attempts. Even after the team trained the animals, the dogs still failed, and the wolves still outshone them. “We imagined that we would find some differences but we didn’t expect them to be quite so strong,” Marshall-Pescini says.

It’s not that the dogs were uninterested: They explored the strings as frequently as the wolves did. But the wolves would explore the apparatus together — biting, pawing, scratching, and eventually pulling on it. The dogs did not. They tolerated each other’s presence, but they were much less likely to engage with the task at the same time, which is why they almost never succeeded.

“The dogs are really trying to avoid conflict over what they see as a resource,” says Marshall-Pescini. “This is what we found in food-sharing studies, where the dominant animal would take the food and the subordinate wouldn’t even try to approach. With wolves, there’s a lot of arguing and it sounds aggressive, but they end up sharing. They have really different strategies in situations of potential conflict. [With the dogs], you see that if you avoid the other individual, you avoid conflict, but you can’t cooperate either.”

“Amazingly, no one had ever studied whether carnivores could solve this type of cooperative task, and it’s fun to see that the wolves coordinated,” says Brian Hare from Duke University, who studies dog behavior and the influence of domestication. He has argued that during the domestication process, dogs began using their traditional inherited mental skills with a new social partner: humans.

Simultaneously, dogs perhaps became less attentive to each other, adds Marshall-Pescini. After all, wolves need to work together to kill large prey, and sharing food helps to keep their social bonds intact. But when they started scavenging on human refuse, they could feed themselves on smaller portions by working alone. If they encountered another forager, “maybe the best strategy was to continue searching rather than to get into conflict with another dog,” she says.

But dogs can be trained. When owners raise dogs in the same household, and train them not to fight over resources, the animals start to tolerate each other, and unlock their ancient wolflike skills. This might be why, in 2014, Ljerka Ostojic, from the University of Cambridge, found that pet dogs, which had been trained in search and rescue, had no trouble with the string-pulling task that flummoxed Marshall-Pescini’s dogs.

“It speaks to the fact that living among other dogs, without interaction with humans, is arguably less natural for dogs — as if domestication both refined attention, coordination, and even pro-sociality between species, and weakened social skills within the species,” says Alexandra Horowitz, who studies dog cognition at Barnard College. “A pack of dogs living together, without human intervention, is impaired compared to dogs living with humans.”

We prefer not to correct that kind of misbehavior after it happens

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Deterrence is more than just deterring a direct attack on ourselves, Techniques of Systems Analysis admits:

We are equally, or almost equally, interested in deterring the enemy from various kinds of provocative actions. For example, we don’t want him to attack Iran or Korea or to make ultimatums against our friends in NATO or, in general, to misbehave. We shall call this kind of deterrence a Type II Deterrence as opposed to the previous kind which we shall label a Type I Deterrence.

Type II Deterrence is important. It is after all true that both the first and second world wars were started by the Allies’ presenting the other side with ultimatums after the other side had put the Allies in an intolerable position. That is, in the first World War the British declared war on the Germans and not vice versa. Similarly, in the second World War the British and French declared war on the Germans after their invasion of Poland.

In the present very tight situation, we prefer not to correct that kind of misbehavior after it happens. We want to deter it from happening. To some extent this can be done by making the potential aggressor apprehensive that, if he pushes too far, we just might take a drastic action of some sort. For example, we might try to convince him that there is a least a small chance that we are will and able to declare war or that we are at least capable of putting ourselves into a position where we would be willing to declare war.