Jul 18

Brin on Heinlein on guns is dead wrong

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about Robert Heinlein, but not to their own facts. In a blog post on Heinlein’s novel Beyond This Horizon, David Brin advances a number of claims which are disputable, and one that is utterly bizarre. He alleges that the thought behind Heinlein’s famous quote “An armed society is a polite society” was not Heinlein’s but issued from John W. Campbell, the editor who with Heinlein invented science fiction as we know it.

This claim is not merely wrong, it attempts to traduce a core belief which Heinlein expressed in his fiction and his nonfiction and his personal letters throughout his life. We do not have to speculate about this; as I shall show, it is so amply documented that Brin’s claim passes from being merely tendentious to outright bizarre.

Brin’s error matters to me personally because, as much as I am anything else, I am one of Heinlein’s children. I have closely studied his works and his life, and that study has shaped me. What I have given to the world through my advocacy of open source is directly tied back to what the Old Man taught me about liberty, transparency, and moral courage. And I am never more Heinlein’s child than when I advocate for an armed (and polite) society.

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Jun 27

Why the political class needs a Greek bailout

There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately on the likelihood that the nation of Greece will default on its public debt, and why it is utterly necessary for the European Union and the U.S. must ride the the rescue with some sort of fiddle involving a combination of (a) massive taxpayer-funded loans, (b) cramming changes in the terms of Greek government bonds down bondholders’ throats, and (c) stern finger-wagging at the Greeks.

Lost in the eye-glazing babble about maturity extensions, haircuts, and which acronymic organization is going to funnel the money into place is the real magnitude of the stakes here. It’s not just the Greeks’ opera-bouffé parody of the modern redistributionist state that is circling the structural-insolvency drain; what really terrifies our political class is the prospect that, very soon, the investors simply won’t buy government bonds anymore – and massive borrowing through bond issues is the only thing keeping the redistributionist state afloat.

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Mar 13

Politics as usual is over

A number of my regulars have asked me why I don’t blog about politics as much as I used to.

Fundamentally, it’s because I think the value of political persuasion is decreasing fast. Political persuasion matters most when when policy options are relatively open and unconstrained by objective conditions that politics cannot alter. It matters less when policy options are more constrained, and not at all when there are no choices left.

The political system I have been criticizing all my adult life is fast approaching the point of “no choices left”. And not just in the U.S., either; the same problems of political overcommitment and structural insolvency are playing out in advanced nations all over the planet.

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Mar 06

Rape statistics: a case study in public flim-flam

A commenter on a recent thread claimed “the lifetime risk of rape for a woman [in the U.S.] is one in six…Almost everyone who deals with the issue considers that wildly too low to be realistic. But one in six is indisputable.”

No incidence of rape above zero is acceptable to me. I teach women pistol self-defense at no charge. You may correctly infer my motives from the fact that the first time a female student of mine shoots a good tight center-of-mass group, my normal mode of expressing approval is to say “That’s one dead rapist!”

Accordingly, I found this claim so disturbing that I decided to research it. What I found appears to be a classic case of unreliable statistics being oversimplified through rumor, hysteria, the telephone effect, and self-serving inflation.

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Feb 03

Heavy weather and bad juju

Many primitive societies believe that maleficient spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes – cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficient human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers – but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” – you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

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Dec 10

Examples and consequences

SF author and civil-rights activist Joel Rosenberg has been unjustly arrested. Good coverage at PopeHat; essentially this is harassment following a Nov 5th assault on Joel by a cop while he was pursuing a FOIA request related to his first arrest, on bogus charges that prosecutors subsequently dropped.

I have very mixed feelings about this one, because I suspect I may, in a manner of speaking, have helped get Joel in trouble.

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Oct 03

Indistinguishable from malice

I believe it was the historian Robert Conquest who said that every organization eventually behaves as though it is run by a secret cabal of its enemies. I have seldom seen any more convincing evidence of this than the “No Pressure” video released by the anti-global-warming activist campaign 10:10.

Watch it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You might have to Google for “no pressure video”, as there seems to have been a concerted attempt by 10:10 and its allies to scrub this thing off the public Internet when they realized what a colossal blunder it was. It’s not pleasant viewing – children being blown up and rivulets of gore spattering in all directions – but you have to actually see it to grasp how callous, awful, and anti-humane it actually is.

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Sep 15

Pessimistic anarchism

I received email recently asking me to respond to an article in the Huffington Post, No Safe Harbor on Gulf Coast; Human Blood Tests Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Exposure. Questioner’s English wasn’t very good, but the question he was trying to pose was how market anarchists like myself can oppose government action to mitigate disasters like the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and what we have to say about the charge that corporate money is suppressing news of the full toll of the disaster.

What I had to say to him about that follows, slightly edited and expanded. It’s as good an individual case as any to explain why my free-market anarchism is a result not of optimism about the perfectibility of markets but of profound pessimism about the limits of any sort of collective action by human beings.

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Sep 12

Engineering history

On a mailing list I frequent, a regular expressed doubt about the possibility that very small subgroups of a society (less than 5% of its population) can cause large changes in the overall direction of its evolution without long historical timespans to work in. But I know from experience that this can happen, because I’ve lived it. My explanation (lightly edited and expanded) follows.

Of particular note is my explanation of how engineering design can shape history.

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Jul 18

Kafkatrapping

Good causes sometimes have bad consequences. Blacks, women, and other historical out-groups were right to demand equality before the law and the full respect and liberties due to any member of our civilization; but the tactics they used to “raise consciousness” have sometimes veered into the creepy and pathological, borrowing the least sane features of religious evangelism.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

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Jul 15

Women in computing: first, get the problem right

Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.

I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.

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Jul 01

After the McDonald decision: what next?

Monday’s decision in McDonald vs. City of Chicago is a major victory for civil rights. Yes, it was 5-4 and the ruling was weaker than it could have been, but the basic holding that the Second Amendment is incorporated against states and all lower levels of government can be a powerful tool for positive change if we wield it correctly. The legal climate for full restoration of firearms rights in the U.S. is now better than it’s been since the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Much remains to be done, however. The Heller ruling in 2008, while affirming that firearms ownership is a fundamental individual right, allowed “reasonable regulation” and failed to specify a standard of scrutiny for what is “reasonable”; the McDonald decision does not specify this either. The constitutionally correct position, of course, is that laws infringing on Second Amendment liberties should have to meet the same strictest-scrutiny standard applied where the First Amendment is concerned — but the City of Chicago has already made plain its intent to nullify the Heller and MacDonald rulings by equating “reasonable” with “prohibitive”.

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Jun 19

A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

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Apr 29

Sheep from Goats: the rise in long-term unemployment

The graph in this article is most interesting. The feature that fascinates me is not the huge crossover from short-term (0-14 week) to long-term (27 weeks or more) of employment, it’s the purple time series describing 15-26-week employment. It has spiked but is now dropping again.

I think I know what this means. It’s the statistical face of the phenomenon I described in Marginal Devolution.

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Mar 23

Victimology bites

Dr. Richard Friedman’s Sabotaging Success, but to What End?, published 2010-03-22 in the New York Times, is about an instantly recognizable pattern — people who sabotage themselves so they can feel like martyred victims of an uncaring world.

The piece is insightful and even funny in a bleak sort of way, but as I read through it I felt an increasing sense that there was something missing from this story. I was nearly at the end before I realized what had been lurking unspoken in Dr. Friedman’s account. But the crucial clue had been there from the beginning, when he writes of one patient “In fact, her status as an injured party afforded her a psychological advantage: she felt morally superior to everyone she felt had mistreated her. This was a role she had no intention of giving up.” Where…now, where had I heard that song before?

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Mar 07

Sink, the Bismarckian state!

Hmm: On 24th February I wrote, in a comment on this blog:

We’re about to reach the end of the historical era that began when Bismarck first implemented state socialism in the 1880s. The changes will be huge and wrenching; I wouldn’t even put the dissolution of the USA outside the realm of possibility.

Two days later, Mark Steyn writes this in Our own Greek tragedy:

The 20th century Bismarckian welfare state has run out of people to stick it to.

Coincidence or conspiracy? You be the judge.

Mar 04

Lies and consequences

In the horrible-inevitability department: Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.

My first thought when I read this was: “Creationists opposing AGW hysteria? Wow. So those stupid fucks are good for something after all.”

My second thought was: “It’d be a damn shame if AGW ends up discrediting good science with the public, but if it happens the scientific establishment has only itself to blame for not busting the AGW fraud first.”

In fact, I don’t think that bad outcome is likely to happen, for reasons I explained in Will the AGW fraud discredit science?. But this news story is a warning to all scientists: if you don’t want creationists to get traction, you can’t just treat this as someone else’s problem. You have to clean house. You have tolerated liars and rascals like Phil Jones and Rajendra Pachauri in your midst too long; you need to throw them out.

A diplomatic way for any random professional society to do this would be to demand that all climate science must be held to the strictest standards of methodological scrutiny. All data, including primary un-“corrected” datasets, must be available for auditing by third parties. All modeling code must be published. The assumptions made in data reduction and smoothing must be an explicitly documented part of the work product.

These requirements would kill off AGW alarmism as surely as a bullet through the head. But its credibility is already collapsing; the rising issue, now, is to prevent collateral damage from the scientific community’s failure to insist on them sooner. Every day you delay will strengthen the creationists and the flat-earthers and all the other monsters begotten from the sleep of reason.

UPDATE: and, in a nice bookend, ABC follows the money, suggesting strongly that the scientific establishment has failed to clean house because alarmism is just too damn lucrative.