Thursday, August 30, 2018

Speaking of Gen. Marshall


Two paradoxes.

A career staff officer and educator, with only a few months of wartime experience, he had deep insights into the qualities needed by commanders at a time of revolutionary change in military affairs.

He was a man renowned for his taciturn demeanor and refusal to seek the spotlight. Yet, he gave us a treasure trove of pithy sayings and useful anecdotes.

Take this one which relates directly to the previous post:

Don’t fight the problem, decide it.
There is a lot of wisdom in each half of this statement. “Fighting” a problem is a terrible temptation. Facing up to disagreeable facts is hard; it is easy to convince yourself that maybe things are not so dire. Maybe there is a way to avoid hard choices.

In addition, fighting the problem nitpicking the data, asking for more analysis, ‘waiting for the situation to become clearer” is also a good way to avoid taking responsibility for a tough decision while giving the illusion of action and diligence.

Note, also, that Marshall did not say “solve the problem”. This is the trap that many smart people fall into. Rather than choosing a messy, imperfect solution, they delay decision, (and hence, action) in an endless search for the clean, elegant solution.

Before anyone had heard of the OODA loop, Marshall understood that in the modern world speed of decision was a key success factor.

And this is where we close the loop back to Blackett’s advice. Silence is often the greatest contribution someone can make when the speed of decision and a bias for action are what matters.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

An expert’s advice to experts about giving advice


Patrick Blackett won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948. During World War Two he played a large role in Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. Yet Blackett did not invent new weapons nor was he a major part of the Manhattan project where most of the great physicists ended up.

As head of “Blackett’s Circus” he brought the systematic thinking at the heart of the scientific method to the knotty problems of military strategy and operations. His work is often credited with creating modern Operations Research. Blackett thought that men like himself could “encourage the use of numerical thinking in operational matters and so [could] help to avoid the running of the war on gusts of emotion.”

One of Churchill’s strengths as a war leader was his willingness (eagerness?) to force the military services to give scientific experts a hearing. During the crucial meetings on the Blitz and the U-boat war, men like Blackett and Lord Cherwell were in the room --- and as more than silent observers.

Blackett, for his part, was neither self-effacing nor devoid of opinions. Yet, he promoted reticence as a virtue for experts who did not bear the burden of command. As he put it:

His job is to improve matters if he can, and if he cannot, to say nothing.
Blackett’s advice shows that he understood the difference between the roles of the executive and the advisor. The intellectual, the expert, the pundit, lives in a world where debate is a job requirement, elegant complexity is valued over crude simplicity, and where time may be a scarce commodity but it is rarely a critical factor. The statesman and the military commander operate in a much different universe. As Henry Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy:

The responsibility of statesmen … is to resolve complexity rather than to contemplate it
Recall Gen. George Marshall’s lament to Eisenhower in the dark days after Pearl Harbor:

Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze the problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Novelists and Rosenhan


Charles Dickens:

[The police] took up several obviously wrong people, and they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas, instead of trying to extract idea from the circumstances.
Great Expectations
Arthur Conan Doyle

The trouble, however, with all police prosecutions is that, having once got what they imagine to be their man, they are not very open to any line of investigation which might lead to other conclusions. Everything that will not fit into the official theory is liable to be excluded.
The Case of Oscar Slater
Related:

Criminal justice and the Rosenhan Experiment

Rosenhan revisited: The persistence of error and the impotence of facts

Rosenhan redux

Revisiting the Hanssen case

Rosenhan revisited, again

They trusted the experts


Friday, August 24, 2018

Factcheck: True


'Well, you have a point there,' grunted the rewrite man. 'I've been reading the stories those buzzards are filing, and it occurs to me that there is no more vicious bigot than a city intellectual contemplating someone to whom he feels intellectually or morally superior.'
Sharyn McCrumb, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

Thursday, August 23, 2018

They still don't get it


Or maybe they do and just don't dare admit it

Interesting review by Nick Carr of a revealing new book-Trump and the Media

Media democratization and the rise of Trump

If there is a way out of the crisis, it may lie in Fred Turner's critical reexamination of past assumptions about the structure and influence of media. Just as we failed to see that democratization could subvert democracy, we may have overlooked the strengths of the mass-media news organization in protecting democracy. Professional gatekeepers have their flaws - they can narrow the range of views presented to the public, and they can stifle voices that should be heard - yet through the exercise of their professionalism they also temper the uglier tendencies of human nature. They make it less likely that ignorance, gullibility, and prejudice will poison our conversations and warp our politics.
Note-The "crisis" is the fact that Hillary Clinton was not allowed to become president.

When a journalist talks about "democracy" what they really mean is "mediated democracy" where Deciders and Experts carefully "curate" the choices put before the public.

PowerLine, where I first found the term, captures the essence of "mediated democracy":

We live in a political system that has not yet been adequately described, but one might call it a "mediated democracy." Mediated by a self-appointed, generally ignorant but highly opinionated "elite" that is not elite by any conventional measure-income, intelligence, education, social position-but that successfully dictates the terms of political discourse even though it no longer controls (exclusively, anyway) the means of production of the news.
(For journalists and academics to speak of Democracy when they really mean this bastardized version is truly Orwellian. Fascists and Stalinists can readily accept the form while arguing about where to draw the line between acceptable and forbidden opinion. A true democrat like G. K. Chesterton would laugh the writers right out of the room.)

Journalists and academics think democracy is in crisis because the voters - darn them - bypassed the Mediators and neutered the Deciders.

Here's a key point that undercuts the "Russia hacked the election" hysteria that has seized hold of the minds of Journalistic Deciders and Mediating Experts:

Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds "no evidence" that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, "worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate." Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It's unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump's victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren't on Twitter or Facebook.
This is something the MSM probably hopes we forget:

Trump's Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and politicos. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets - they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns - mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media's biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.
Related:

Journalists and Twitter redux

Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?

Why Twitter?



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Digital isolation and inadvertent anonymity


In I Murdered My Library, Linda Grant recounts her experience downsizing her living space and the resulting massive reduction in her home library. A lifelong reader, journalist, and novelist she had spent decades collecting books. (As every reader knows, books are always collected, never “hoarded”.) Now she faced the the melancholy task of disposing of most of her library.

According to Vincent Starrett “when we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” For book lovers, the act of shrinking a library is, in some sense, to deplete one’s happiness treasury. For Grant, this personal sense of loss is coupled with the literary professional’s larger concern that fewer and fewer people share her love for books while a growing segment of the population actively hates them

Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room books make rooms look messy. Books’ multi-coloured spines muddle and muddy the Farrow & Ball neutral paint colours, the Ammonite and Hardwick White and Savage Ground. They completely destroy the impact of the accent wall.

[Books] are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but of disposable living and small houses.
Thanks to technology, Grant can shrink the space devoted to her library while retaining many of her favorite titles. At first, like most of us, the ebook is a thrilling, liberating marvel.

As I began to buy more ebooks, I felt a sense of surprise and delight and wonder that I could carry around a library in my pocket.
Over time, however, she discovers that even great New Things have limitations and pitfalls. Some are obvious and quickly encountered. Books may be the ultimate “always on” technology; Kindles, not so much:

I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.
There are other, subtler effects of a pocket-sized library:

I experienced the sense that I was making my library partly invisible.
As most readers know, this is no minor thing:

Michael Dirda:

Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I was growing up, there used to be an impressive librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you.
Umberto Eco:

The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait.
Edith Nesbit

There is no bond like having read and liked the same books.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

V. S. Naipal


As is often the case, the most interesting discussion is over at Steve Sailer’s.

I’ve not read much of his work, but even a small dose was enough to convince me that Naipaul, like Tom Wolfe, was that most fearsome of men the intelligent outsider who notices things. And, again like Wolfe, he was not afraid to point out absurdities and pretensions when they came to his attention.

Wolfe had Leonard Bernstein, the Black Panthers, and Radical Chic. Naipaul had Michael X aka Michael Abdul Malik aka Michael de Frietas: Hustler, criminal, pimp, revolutionary, cult leader, murderer.

Michael X knew a good hustle when he found one and he pounced like the good predator he was:

At every stage of his career he was supported by some kind of jargon and could refer his actions to some kind of revolutionary ideal.
Naipaul is actually more interested in his enablers and Michael X had many. The Observer praised him as an “authentic voice of black bitterness”. John Lennon visited his commune in Trinadad and would go on to pay for his defense attorney, William Kunstler. The “Save Michael X” movement drew in the usual suspects like Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, and Kate Millet.

Naipaul is unsparing in his assessment of these frivolous people playacting with degenerate ideas :

That section of the middle class that knows only that it is secure, has no views, only reflexes and scattered irritations, and sometimes indulges in play: the people who keep up with 'revolution' as with the theater.
...
Those who continue to simplify the world and reduce other men … to a cause, the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.