Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wrong turn on the way to utopia


An impassioned and astute piece by Nicholas Carr

The world wide cage

Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency.
I couldn't help but think of G.K. Chesterton when I read this:

What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.
Over a century ago GKC was warning against this temptation in Heretics:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique....The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.
...
[Modern man] says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; he he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. he is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals-- of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself
On a side note, I had not heard of "innocent fraud" before but it is a useful concept.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.

In some way, the modern MSM, with its obsession with Narratives and hot takes, exists primarily to create and perpetuate innocent frauds.


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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Well worth a listen

Podcast: A Look Inside The Mind Of Donald Trump And His Life's Philosophy:



Author Christopher Bedford explores the many sides of Donald Trump and what we can learn about his approach to business and politics.


Friday, October 13, 2017

How Jimmy Kimmel became the Moral Arbiter of the Nation


“Democrats are becoming the party of the celebrity sockpuppet.”

Polarization as a business model

This is an astute piece by Robert Tracinski:

Why Late Night Hosts Like Jimmy Kimmel Are Suddenly So Political
He ends up challenging the assumptions and explanations of both the Acela corridor and the #MAGA legions:

Maybe viewership is declining because late-night talk show hosts have become more political (and less funny). Or maybe the hosts are getting more political because their viewership is declining.

What were once cultural institutions with a broad, bipartisan audience are becoming niche players with a narrow fan base. They no longer view partisan politics as a dangerous move that will shrink their audience. Instead, they’re using partisan politics as a lure to secure the loyalty of their audience, or what is left of it. Not that it’s going to work over the long term, because people who want to have their biases confirmed will just watch the five-minute YouTube clip Chris Cillizza links to the next day.
It all makes sense as a short-term strategy. How long it can work really depends on the viewers and advertisers. We know viewers are going away so it is really just a question of milking the late night gig for as much as possible before it all goes away.

How long will advertisers keep chasing those shrinking left-wing audiences?

On one hand, this remains true:

MSM: Shrinking Audience, Leftward Drift

Media companies have an additional layer of insulation. Their advertising revenue is based on more factors than the absolute size of the audience. As long as broadcast networks are larger than their competition, they can command a premium CPM. They remain the only game in town for advertisers who want to make a big splash. In addition, it is easy to cook up justifications and rationalizations about the elite nature of their audience, their higher spending in key categories, their role as influencers. (CNN has been successful doing this versus Fox.)

Much of this is poppycock and will not stand up to scrutiny. But here is the rub: liberal advertising types in Manhattan or San Francisco see no reason to scrutinize them. For one thing, it plays to their ego. ("People like me are more important than the masses who eat at Crackerbarrel and live in places like Stoughton, Wisconsin.") Second, they are not spending their money.
I wonder, however, if advertisers will stick with Kimmel and Colbert as they go hard left. The hosts have explicitly chosen a side in the Cold Civil War. Do advertisers really want to join them?

Colbert can appeal to SJWs by mocking Deplorables and conservatives. His targets can do nothing except not watch him. His business model does not depend on the largest possible audience merely the largest audience in a highly fragmented landscape. So the Colbert-SJW lovefest goes on.

Except.

The business model runs on advertising revenue and that means big brands. Big brands that want big market shares. How many of those marketers want to start out by alienating 40-60% of their potential customers.

For Kimmel or Colbert a 4% market share is a cause for celebration. That same market share would mark the end of the world for Pepsi and Budweiser.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

We owe Salem an apology


The worst argument in the world is a date.
GK Chesterton
Congregants of the Church of the Current Year have an intense if solipsistic relationship with the past:

Old:Bad
New: Good
Newest (me!): Best of all

As is usually the case with narcissistic faiths, profound knowingness crowds out real knowledge.

Take, for instance, our self-congratulatory “understanding” of Puritan Salem and the witch trials of 1692. Old Salem is silly and backward and believes in witch’s spells. The subtext, of course, is that we are smart and sophisticated and have nothing to learn from anyone who was never on Instagram.

The facts are much less flattering to the evangelists of the Current Year. Compared to the rest of the Western world, Puritan New England was relatively free of demon-haunted worldview which which marked the 17th century in Europe.

Jesse Walker:

English America was less witch-obsessed than England, and England in turn was less witch-obsessed that Scotland or the Continent. From 1623 to 1631, the German bishopric of Wurzburg burned an estimated nine hundred people for their ostensible dealings with demons. If that body count is accurate, one tiny principality killed more supposed Satanists in an eight-year period than were executed in all of New England in the entire seventeenth century.
Cotton Mather, who supported the witch trials and the punishment of those found guilty, was also an early advocate of vaccination against small pox. When it came to Science, he was more cutting edge than Bill Nye can every hope to be.

A key point by Walker:

In Salem, spectral evidence became admissible in court; the boundary between the waking world and the land of dreams broke down. Again, we are not as different from those backward Puritans as we like to think. The court in Salem unknowingly brought the dream world into their proceedings.
We do it explicitly (“Recovered Memory”) and deluded people call it Science.

We usually tell only half the story of the witch trials. We get the hysteria, the testimony about specters that tormented their victims in the night, the guilty verdicts rendered with no physical evidence presented.

Walker reminds us that there was a Act Two:

In 1697, Massachusetts recognized a day of repentance for the prosecution of innocent people. One magistrate anounced that he accepted 'the blame and shame' for his role in the affair, and a dozen Salem jurors signed a formal declaration of regret
Once you know the whole story of Salem AND remember our own recent history, you realize the Current Year should hang its head in shame.

After all, we, too, had our hysteria-fueled public trials. Just as in Salem the name of Satan figured prominently. Innocent people were punished in the complete absence of physical evidence of their guilt.

In the aftermath of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic we had no “day of repentance”. The prosecutors, investigators, and judges did not accept responsibility let alone “blame and shame.” Some, like Martha Coakley of Massachusetts persisted in their persecution of the innocent for decades.

Related:

They trusted the experts







Friday, October 06, 2017

Understanding the fall of South Vietnam


I ran across this from the great Jerry Pournelle:

The anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the consequent death of about a million people who thought the United States would protect them. The end of American credibility: not only did Kennedy allow the assassination of the man who invited his help, but when Viet Nam was invaded by three army corps with armor and other weapons from Russia, the Democratic majority Congress abandoned our allies, and we had the shameful scene of pushing helicopters off the deck of a carrier to make room for more.

Viet Nam was not a civil war. The insurgent movement was defeated. Then in 1972 the North sent down 150,000 men with as much armor as the Wehrmacht sent into France, The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam – ARVN – with US air and materiel support destroyed the enemy. Fewer than 50,000 returned north. US casualties were under a thousand, in a battle larger than most in World War II. It was no civil war; it was an invasion from the North; and it was defeated by ARVN, with little US ground support and few American casualties. It was victory.

Of course we do not celebrate victory in Viet Nam.

When the North built a new army and sent it south, the Democrats of the Congress denied all air support, and voted materiel support of twenty (20) cartridges and two (2) hand grenades per ARVN soldier. Accordingly and predictably Saigon fell and the War ended with a North Viet Nam victory. Executions, reeducation camps, boat people and other refugees accordingly followed; and the dominoes fell in the killing fields of Cambodia.

The Democratic Party does not celebrate this victory, but it is all theirs; and the myth that the USA was defeated by Viet Cong guerrillas grows and grows.

And the one certain lesson of the fall of Saigon is that you cannot trust the United States to defend you no matter how much blood and treasure has been spent, or how little will be needed: US politics trump any national commitment. It was not always so.

Let's hope this new book helps dispel the myth of the victorious VC guerrilla.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A much needed book


From the publisher description:

The defeat of South Vietnam was arguably America’s worst foreign policy disaster of the 20th Century. Yet a complete understanding of the endgame—from the 27 January 1973 signing of the Paris Peace Accords to South Vietnam’s surrender on 30 April 1975—has eluded us.
...

Ultimately, whatever errors occurred on the American and South Vietnamese side, the simple fact remains that the country was conquered by a North Vietnamese military invasion despite written pledges by Hanoi’s leadership against such action. Hanoi’s momentous choice to destroy the Paris Peace Accords and militarily end the war sent a generation of South Vietnamese into exile, and exacerbated a societal trauma in America over our long Vietnam involvement that reverberates to this day. How that transpired deserves deeper scrutiny.
Related:

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thought for the day


Health is ruined by the systematic duplicity forced on people if you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.

Boris Pasternak
Dr. Zhivago




Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That vision thing


Strategy, vision, and leadership

What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get It Right

When a leader must implement a new strategy, especially one that requires new systems, processes, and perhaps people, it is the start of a new era. Success requires more than the right combination of capital and technology; it also requires a critical mass of employees to adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking. But too often, CEOs and boards in these situations think through the capital and technology issues much more carefully than those involving behavior and attitudes. That imbalance is a primary reason new strategies fail.
All too often, when organizations start crafting “vision statements” it is a bureaucratic exercise undertaken grudgingly and with little commitment. The resulting product looks as if the Underpants Gnomes were lead consultants on the project.

1. Our current poor performance is unsustainable.
2. Vision!!! Strategy!! Leadership!
3. World class performance and rivers of profit!
As is always the case with the Underpants Gnomes, Step 2 needs a little fleshing out.

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so. This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.
The Culture Code
Daniel Coyle
Field Marshall William Slim was one of the great commanders of World War Two. He took over a demoralized, defeated army that had known only defeat--Singapore, Malaya, Burma. In two years he had transformed it. In the reconquest of Burma, his Fourteenth Army inflicted the greatest defeat the Imperial Japanese Army suffered during the war.

His methods were not the stuff of soaring vision statements or Napoleonic bluster.

Training could inspire confidence, but not motivation. From past experience, Slim learned that the best approach was the most simple and direct -- to talk to as many troops as he could, man to man, cutting through the traditional barriers of military hierarchy. It was also the most time-consuming. Slim reckoned that this exercise took up a third of his time.
Churchill’s Generals
Slim also recognized that transformation must begin with small steps and small victories. That was the only way to restore confidence and gain the trust of the men in the ranks.

When it came to putting theory into practice, Slim took things steadily and carefully. Failure at this stage would have been psychologically disastrous, and his initial limited attacks, often deploying entire brigades against single Japanese companies, were designed to ensure success.
One sees the same idea at work in the leadership style of FM Bernard Montgomery.

Although he was fond of emphasizing that morale was the most important single factor in war, he knew that morale could not be maintained unless everyone from the top to the bottom was confident they could succeed. For that, the strategy, the 'masterplan', had to be sound, the tactics adapted to the circumstances and the soldiers thoroughly trained to implement them.
In contrast, there is no better example of the dangers of lofty, unconstrained vision than the Nivelle offensive in 1917. It provoked mutinies in the French Army and brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.

Related:

Smart talk on strategy

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Two)

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Three)

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (Part Two)


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Peloponnesian War or politics in the Age of Twitter?


An even more striking example of Thucydides’s concern with the corruption of language was found in his description of the uprising in Corcyra, which resulted in a bloody civil war between the democrats and the oligarchs. As he described the breakdown of social order, he also described the corruption of language. Recklessness became courage, prudence became cowardice, moderation became unmanly, an ability to see all sides of a question became an incapacity to act, while violence became manly and plotting self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was to be trusted and those who opposed them suspect.
Lawrence Freedman
Strategy: A History


Monday, September 18, 2017

Coalition strategy and strategic fantasies


The first requirement for a student of Allied grand strategy in World War Two is a high tolerance for boredom. Anglo-American strategy was not the stuff of Napoleonic genius translated into instant military action. Instead, strategic decision-making was a matter of memoranda. Memos setting out each partner’s proposed strategy. Memos responding to those memos. Memos preparing for conferences. Memos memorializing the decisions reached at those conferences.

It makes for dry and often tedious reading. Yet this memo-laden process (Eisenhower called it a “trans-Atlantic essay contest”) was vital to forging the war-winning strategy of the Allies.

The contrast with the Axis is stark. Despite all the bumps along the way, the allies were making joint strategy: all the memo-writing led to decisions that bound both the US and Great Britain. The Axis resolutely refused to do anything like this.

This article illustrates just how disconnected the Axis powers were as they fought a global coalition.

The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes, 1937-1942

The Japanese advances in the Southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore produced a sort of ‘cascade effect’ also on the Axis naval position: Rome (and Berlin) at least perceived this. The Italian Navy was increasingly confident that now the Tripartite could launch a global assault on the enemy sea-lanes. The Japanese guarantees fueled Italian expectations that establishing a naval contact with the Axis via the Indian Ocean was a priority. In April 1942, the raid of the Japanese Fleet against Ceylon seemed to anticipate further projection in the area, while the Japanese dismissed the British occupation of the naval base of Diego Suarez in Madagascar in May 1942 as unimportant. The Italians envisaged the possibility to send the largest number of their submarines in the Indian Ocean to attack enemy shipping that was resupplying British forces in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected.

At this point, practical cooperation would have needed a political instrument to work. The only suitable seats were the Military Commissions. However, in March 1942, the three powers agreed that ‘[T]he commissions’ activity must […] act only at the margins of the political and military conduct of the war’. Even the exchange of information and intelligence not worked. Supermarina had to follow the official bulletin of the Imperial General Headquarters to obtain details of Japanese naval losses: this explains why the Japanese defeat at Midway never appears in the Italian reports.

During summer 1942, the stalemate at El-Alamein and the possibility that British 8th Army might mount a counteroffensive made it urgent for the Axis to attack the enemy supply lines. At the end of August, Abe personally assured Mussolini that submarines were intensifying operations in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, between August and November, the Submarine Squadron 8 was dispatched in the Western Indian Ocean, sinking 60,000 tonnes of ships. The Italians and the Germans proposed again to send their submarines to cooperate with the Japanese, asking for the necessary logistical support. Tokyo refused, arguing that Japanese units had to operate alone to avoid incidents with the Axis units.


Friday, September 15, 2017

A little dash of Chesterton


Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which your are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. ... It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic.
As I Was Saying


Smart talk on strategy


How Nelson Did It

One of the most interesting commentators on strategy is Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011). The book opens with a brief account of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the British fleet consisting of 27 ships defeated the combined forces of the French and Spanish, which numbered 33 ships. Nelson won the day by adopting an unconventional strategy. Flouting the naval convention of the time, he divided his smaller fleet into two columns and sailed them perpendicularly into the enemy fleet to cut the Franco-Spanish line.

Nelson knew that his lead ships would be vulnerable to Franco-Spanish guns until they could close on the opposing fleet. He gambled that the less well-trained enemy gunners would not be able to capitalize on their advantage. He was proved right. The French and Spanish canons were not able to compensate for the heavy swell and missed their opportunity to sink the British ships while they could not return fire. Once the battle was joined, the superiority of the British seamanship was decisive. The French and Spanish lost 22 ships. The British lost none. This, as Rumelt points out, is an example of a good strategy.

“Nelson’s challenge was that he was outnumbered. His strategy was to risk his lead ships in order to break the coherence of his enemy’s fleet. With coherence lost, he judged, the more experienced English captains would come out on top in the ensuing melee. Good strategy almost always looks this simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain. It does not pop out of some “strategic management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them."
This is obviously true. So obvious that it seems almost self-evident. Yet, the empirical evidence is also clear -- most large organizations do not have clear strategies as Richard Rumelt defines the term.

Large bureaucracies do not have strategies, they produce shopping lists.
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Rumelt offers several reasons why this is so:

Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them.
Related:

A primer on strategy

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (II)



Thought for the day


There was and is a strong tendency among Marxists to accept pseudoscience. The mechanism seems to be related to the desire for complete solutions -- which are, of course, more commonly found in the pseudosciences than in the sciences proper
Robert Conquest