Monday, July 15, 2019

The Great Depression wasn't awful for everybody

Though it was devastating to most Americans, the onset of the Great Depression enabled Harry Hopkins to escape the shame of his marital breakup and resurrect his personal and professional life.

[It was] a pathway to power, influence, and fame in the nation's capital.

David L. Roll, The Hopkins Touch

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The internet in historical perspective

Tom Wheeler, former chair of the FCC:

Today, everybody talks about how much information is bombarding us. Imagine what it must have been like after the printing press when people who had been totally devoid of information had all of this information flooding them. The powers-that-be rebelled against that. Shortly after the printing press was developed, a Swiss scholar sat down and said, “I’m going to catalog all of the books that have been printed thus far.” He ended up warning of the harmful magnitude of books and how it will create nothing but chaos. Well, that’s kind of like what we’re experiencing today on the internet, isn’t it?
The railroad was the first high-speed network. From the beginning of humankind, geography and distance had defined the human experience. How far can muscle power take you in a day was a defining force. How far you can carry raw materials — whether it be coal or wheat — was a defining economic force. All of a sudden, the railroad comes by and destroys distance. It was the original death of distance. It totally reshaped economies and created the Industrial Revolution by being able to haul raw materials to a central point for mass production, and then haul the finished product back out to a connected market.

Immediately on top of the railroad came the telegraph. It became the tool by which to manage the railroad as well as manage these far-flung production capabilities. It introduced the first national news media, the first national financial markets. These two together in the middle of the 19th century created the reality that we take for granted today and are now living as a result of the internet.
From 2003

The Internet seems less important than the printing press. So much that flowed from movable type and cheap paper-- books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets-- was new. Websites and blogs just seem like a continuation of some of these innovations.

On the other hand, the Internet is probably as important as the telegraph or telephone. They are also similar in that they represent improvements in the speed and ease of long-distance communication. But that is evidence that the Internet is not unprecedented or revolutionary as some boosters claimed. And returning to Brad DeLong's point, it suggests that technological advances do not automatically create business or social utopias. The telegraph's effect on government and business were varied. The Internet's effects will probably be the same mixed bag.

Monday, June 17, 2019

What the Victorians wrought

This is from a book review by Jacob Heilbrunn in Modern Age:

Edward Gibbon, for instance, complacently observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that while 'constant and useful labor' maybe the occupation of the vulgar multitude, it was the case that the 'select few, placed by fortune above that necessity, can fill up their time by the pursuits of interest or glory, by the improvement of their estate or of their understanding, by the duties, the pleasures, and even the follies of social life.
Within a few decades Britain and the US saw an explosion of social groups devoted to self-improvement and providing the pleasures of social life even to “the vulgar multitude.’


One of the very first times Abraham Lincoln appears in the public record is as the result of a speech he gave to Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838. What interests me here is not the speech but the venue. The first cabin at the place that would become Springfield was built on the Illinois frontier in 1820. In the 1840 census, the town had a population of 2,579. Yet the people of Springfield, the young men of Springfield, were already part of the Lyceum movement.

Victorians at their best

In praise of the Victorians

The distilled essence of everything bad about true crime podcasts

When the SJWs at Crime Writers On agree with the ninjas on Reddit, you know it must be a really awful podcast

To Live and Die In L.A, The Worst True Crime Podcast Of All Time

To Live And Die In LA - NOPE.
They may well be right. It manages to combine the worst faults of the MSM and the worst features of amateur true crime podcasts: Scooby-do LARPing, vulture journalism, fruitless speculation, character assassination, solipsistic narration, and cheesy cliff-hangers. To Live and Die in LA manages to include them all.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Tyrants have always hated history and have sought to control it

The first Emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang (221-210 BC) sought to prevent critical comparison with previous rulers by removing all historical and philosophical texts from private hands and placing them in the imperial library
Christopher Andrew, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

Thursday, June 06, 2019

This is what leadership looks like

As the battle raged on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower followed the sporadic and fragmentary reports of the fighting. He was the supreme military commander yet on that day he was largely powerless. He was responsible for the most complex operation ever mounted by any nation or coalition; on the most critical day of the war, he was largely an observer.

All through the Longest Day he carried a document in his pocket. He had written it himself in the hours after he ordered Operation OVERLORD to commence.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Credentialed, not educated

From that notorious Trumpkin William James:

Human nature is once for all so childish that every reality becomes a sham somewhere, and in the minds of President and Trustees the Ph. D. degree is in point of fact already looked upon as a mere advertising resource, a manner of throwing dust in the Public's eye.
"The Ph. D. Octopus", (1903)
He goes on to describe the drive to require the Ph. D. for college educators as "a grotesque tendency" driven by "vanity and sham".

He ends with a pointed to question:

Other nations suffer terribly from the Mandarin disease. Are we doomed to suffer like the rest?
Unfortunately, we now know that the answer was "yes".

Saturday, June 01, 2019

A mystery solved

Matt Birkbeck's A Beatuful Child is one of the most haunting true crime books I've ever read. The story that begins with a common enough crime -- a woman is killed by a hit-and-run driver in Oklahoma City in April 1990. But the police investigation soon uncovers other horrific crimes and several enduring mysteries.

The victim, known as "Tonya Hughes" at the time of her death, had lived under a series of false names for over a decade. The man who claimed to be her husband was a federal fugitive. Years earlier he had pretended to be her father when she lived under the name of "Sharon Marshall".

Franklin Delano Floyd had kidnapped her from somewhere. He had abused and exploited her and her son. And, as a final insult, he refused to reveal her real identity. so that her famility could have some closure.

Birkbeck refused to let the story end there. Even after he published A Beautiful Child in 2004 he kept searching for "Sharon Marshall"'s family.

He persisted through years of disappointment. Finally, in 2014, the painstaking work of dozens of professional and amateur investigators uncovered the truth:

"Tonya Hughes"/"Sharon Marshall" was Suzanne Marie Sevakis born in Livonia, Michigan in 1969.

Finding Sharon tells the story of that investigation. Along the way Birkbeck fills in asome of the blanks In Sevakis's short, tragic life.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rejoice! He is Risen!

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words,

And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24: 1-12

Friday, April 19, 2019

"Wood, and nails, and colored eggs"

First Posted 22 March 2005

This passage from Martin Bell's remarkable little book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images seems especially timely this Easter season.

God raised Jesus from the dead to the end that we should be clear-once and for all-that there is nothing more important than being human. Our lives have eternal significance. And no one-absolutely no one-is expendable.

Colored Eggs

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all-and so it will be necessary to color the eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is a hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then he simply raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Part III

A tacit deal with the devil

In September 1944, at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, George Orwell unleashed a withering blast against British Stalinists and their fellow-travelers:

Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not 'Is this policy right or wrong?' but 'This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?' And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power.

First of all, a message to English left-wing journalists and intellectuals generally: Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don't imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist for the Soviet regime, or any other other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.
FDR died before the end of the war. Any evaluation of his actions over Katyn must allow that wartime expediency played a large role in his decision-making.

Nonetheless, the choices he made had far-reaching consequences. Key parts of his administration behaved as propagandists for Stalin’s regime. As Orwell warned it would not be easy to put those habits aside or to face up to the moral cost.

We know that people do not change their minds easily. They will fight the evidence in front of their eyes. Most prefer to cling to illusions rather than admit error. When all else fails, people prefer to ignore the matter and pretend that it never happened.

This problem becomes even more acute when an issue becomes grist for political campaigns. Honesty may be the best policy but it can also be a quick way to lose an election.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had no interest in losing elections.

Thus, while the US and Stalin came to be adversaries in the post-war years, the leaders of each country shared certain common objectives. For instance, none of them wanted the whole truth about Poland to come out.

Nor would they want the full story of Soviet penetration of the US government to become public.

  • The NKVD and GRU obviously wanted to avoid a thorough reckoning. They might be able to salvage some of their intelligence and influence assets if the matter remained a shameful secret for the US government.
  • Naïve liberals who could not distinguish between fellow liberals and Stalinist feared a witch-hunt. While they trusted communists, they feared the vast majority of the public. Therefore, they preferred to suppress information that might “inflame” public opinion.
  • Clear-eyed functionaries understood that their reputations and claims to power would be damaged if it were revealed that they had permitted Stalin’s agents to roam freely through their departments or that they had helped cover-up Moscow’s crimes.

As Stephen Koch noted the Wise Men, the New Dealers, and the Brain Trusters faced a serious risk if the truth came out:

Any very public housecleaning of the Washington penetrations would have handed the populist right an all-too-powerful blunt instrument for attacking Yalta, containment, and their own position in power.
OK. It is finally time to talk about the narratives of McCarthyism and the importance of Katyn in them

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

Part II

Once FDR and Stalin agreed to keep each other’s secrets, the US government labored to cover-up Soviet atrocities.

OWI: Above and beyond

Most of the government preferred to deal with Katyn by ignoring it and hoping the issue would fade away. On 22 April 1943 (nine days after the graves were revealed to the world) a State Department memo recommended that

on the basis of the various conflicting contentions [concerning Katyn] of all parties concerned, it would appear to be advisable to refrain from taking any definite stand in regard to this question.
Other bureaucrats chose to be more energetic and proactive.

The Office of War Information (OWI) was a key player in deep-sixing the truth. OWI loudly denied that the Soviets were responsible. This government bureau smeared those who raised questions as dupes and worse. In OWI’s eyes to doubt Stalin was to be pro-Nazi. The head of OWI Elmer Davies (remember that name) led the charge. On 3 May 1943, he took to the airwaves to defend Stalin’s honor and followed the Stalinist line that the Germans were responsible.

This is not benign neglect of an inconvenient truth. This is lying to the American public. But Davies and his people went even farther to help FDR and Stalin. The OWI actively worked to silence and censor media outlets that raised questions about Stalin’s role in Katyn.

We now know that Soviet intelligence had placed many assets in OWI. Some of its employees left the US after the war and went to work in Warsaw for the puppet government installed by the Red Army. There they wrote propaganda for Stalin. (Hence, their location changed but not their job duties.)

A sorry tale, more than a little sordid. Sadly, all wars, no matter how noble their aims, have their squalid incidents hidden away in dark corners. Governments lie to the public, especially in wartime. In this case, however, the cover-up forced the government to lie to itself with tragic consequences. Moreover, the lying and cover-ups did not end when the war was finally over.

Willful blindness and self-imposed ignorance

The Katyn cover-up did not simply conceal information from the public (voters). Steps were taken to ensure that the truth was hidden from most of the decision-makers in government. Note, for example, that MG Bissell apparently took no steps to ensure that Van Vliet’s information was shared with those policy-makers who were dealing with Stalin.

Reports came into the War and State Departments that implicated the Soviets. They were buried rather than disseminated. In some cases they were not even archived and ignored they were destroyed so they could never see the light of day.

This destruction was a willful and premeditated rejection of the lessons learned in the intelligence war against Germany and Japan.

At times it did not matter if a report was true or important: if it was perceived as “anti-soviet” it was rejected. People who sent along too many “anti-soviet” reports faced severe consequences to their career and reputation.

FDR actually exiled former Pennsylvania governor George Earle to Samoa after he voiced strong opinions on Stalin’s guilt. Earle was serving as a naval officer and had investigated the massacre while on a diplomatic mission in the Balkans. FDR rejected his assessment and took extreme steps to make sure his view did not become public.

FDR told Earle that he was absolutely certain that the Nazis were guilty. This is not surprising. His closest aide, Harry Hopkins, was completely in the pro-Stalin camp. When the massacre came to light Hopkins followed Moscow's lead in denouncing the Polish government for raising questions and demanding answers. He was happy to impute invidious motives to the ally fighting along side us in the "crusade in Europe".

Indeed, when the Poles exiled in London publicly denounced the Soviets for the massacre, Hopkins responded that they were troublemakers, interested only in preventing their large estates from falling into Russian hands.
David L. Roll, The Hopkins Touch
U.S. policy-makers operated under the illusion that Stalin could be reasoned with -- that he could be a partner to secure the peace and safeguard a free and prosperous Europe. This illusion persisted, in part, because the bureaucracy squelched contrary opinions. Moreover, the arguments of the skeptics were weakened because they and their audiences were denied important information.

Famed diplomat George Kennan is a case in point. He doubted that Stalin could allow any degree of freedom in Poland after the war. As he saw it, the Russians had surely committed atrocities when they occupied Poland in partnership with Hitler. These crimes had to be covered up. The only way for Stalin to ensure that the cover-up would succeed was to install a regime completely servile to Moscow.

Kennan tried to make this case to his colleagues and bosses in State. As he admits his argument was weak because “I had no proof.” Without proof, his astute analysis was no match for officially sanctioned illusions.

He had no proof because key figures in the executive branch worked diligently to bury the evidence of Stalin’s crimes.

So it went for anyone who tried to put US-Soviet relations on a realistic footing. Their voice was muted and their position was weakened because elements inside the government worked overtime to bolster Stalin’s image, hide his perfidy, and punish his critics.


Western opinion was never fully aware, during the war years, of the full monstrosity of what had been done by the soviet police authorities during the Nonaggression Pact period.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

For a half-century after the mass murder of the Polish officers, the US government sought to cover-up and downplay this Stalinist atrocity.

The cover-up had far-reaching repercussions. It had a direct effect on the 1944 presidential election. It influenced our policies on the post-war settlement in Eastern Europe. To this day, it distorts our understanding of the history of WWII and post-war anti-communism.

Part I

Dangerous knowledge

Even before the Germans revealed the mass graves at Katyn, the US government had good reason to believe that something horrific had happened to the Polish officers. The Polish government in exile knew that thousands of POWs were unaccounted for. When pressed on this issue, Stalin was first evasive and then offered excuses that were unpersuasive and even laughable. (Gee, maybe they deserted and went to Manchuria.)

In 1942, Army intelligence (G-2) received reports from an agent in France that the Soviets had murdered Polish prisoners on an industrial scale.

Soon after the graves were discovered the Germans took several allied prisoners to the site in the hopes that they would confirm that the Soviets were responsible for the murders. The POWs refused to cooperate with their captors and balked at helping Goebbels’s propaganda efforts. However, the American prisonersCapt. Donald Stewart and Lt. Col. John Van Vliet were able to send coded messages to Army G-2 expressing their belief that the Soviets were guilty.

[The government hid the fact that they possessed this early evidence of Stalin’s culpability for over a half-century.]

After he was liberated from his POW camp, Lt. Col. Van Vliet made a report directly to Major General Clayton Bissell, head of Army G-2, in May 1945. In this report, he confirmed his assessment of Soviet guilt and expanded on his reasons for believing this. MG Bissell classified the report TOP SECRET and emphasized to Lt. Col. Van Vliet that he was to discuss the matter with no one.

This report was not circulated within the government. The single copy mysteriously went missing soon after it was written.

In 1951, congress created a committee to investigate Katyn. Stewart and Van Vliet were again sworn to secrecy about the coded messages they sent as POWs. Van Vliet was ordered to write a new report to replace the missing one he wrote in 1945. The Defense department eventually provided this report to the committee after a prolonged period of obfuscation and stonewalling.

The Katyn Committee heard testimony from MG Bissell. While he could not (or would not) explain how the 1945 report was lost, he was happy to explain why he failed to give the report wide circulation within the government:

Poland couldn't participate in the war with Japan. The Russians could participate in it. Those were the factors.
Based on realpolitik it is impossible to fault Bissell’s strategic calculus. With the war still raging in the Pacific, maintaining good relations with Stalin made strategic sense.

Guilty knowledge and a conspiracy of silence

Bissell was not alone in his assessment. Throughout the war, US military planners feared that Stalin might make a separate peace with Hitler. This, in turn, would allow Hitler to concentrate on the western allies and cost the lives of untold thousands of soldiers from the US, Britain, and the other nations fighting with them.

Of course, Poland was one of those nations fighting with the Allies in the West. The United States may have had no choice but to placate Stalin. They did have the option to be honest with the ally whose soldiers were fighting beside them. Allied leaders made the morally dubious decision to lie to a faithful partner. Eisenhower did not inform the Poles fighting under him in France that his great crusade would not bring freedom to their families in Poland. Churchill never told the Poles that they were fighting for the glory of the British Empire instead of the independence of their homeland. Instead he assured Gen. Anders "we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy."

Realpolitik was not the only factor at work. On the American side an even more repugnant calculus came into play FDR’s political prospects. At the Tehran Conference in late 1943, Roosevelt acceded to many of Stalin’s demands. But, he explained to the despot, the details of the negotiations must remain secret for a time: 1944 was an election year and he did not want to alienate millions of Polish-Americans whose votes he needed.

Stalin played along. During the campaign FDR told the Polish premier that "A strong and independent Poland will emerge" after the fighting ended. Stalin's silence allowed this lie to pass unchallenged.

The same need for secrecy obviously held true for Katyn. If the truth came out, it would do more than complicate US diplomacy: it would hinder Roosevelt's campaign for a fourth term.

So it was that FDR and Stalin became tacit co-conspirators. They shared an interest in hiding the truth about Poland.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Katyn and the historians

Anthony Daniels:

There is a curious phenomenon in Western intellectual life, namely that of being right at the wrong time. To be right at the wrong time is far, far worse than having been wrong for decades on end. In the estimation of many intellectuals, to be right at the wrong time is the worst possible social faux pas; like telling an off-colour joke at the throning of a bishop. In short, it is in unforgivable bad taste.

There was never a good time, for example, to be anti-communist. Those who early warned of the dangers of bolshevism were regarded as lacking in compassion for the suffering of the masses under tsarism, as well as lacking the necessary imagination to “build” a better world. Then came the phase of denial of the crimes of communism, when to base one’s anti-communism on such phenomena as organised famine and the murder of millions was regarded as the malicious acceptance of ideologically-inspired lies and calumnies. When finally the catastrophic failure of communism could no longer be disguised, and all the supposed lies were acknowledged to have been true, to be anti-communist became tasteless in a different way: it was harping on pointlessly about what everyone had always known to be the case. The only good anti-communist was a mute anti-communist.
The handling of the Katyn massacre by Western historians fits Daniel’s description to a “T”:

The treatment of the Katyn massacre illustrates the determined myopia of revisionists in the decades prior to the collapse of the USSR and the opening of its archives.
Haynes and Klehr, In Denial
As Haynes and Klehr go on to record, the left-wing’s campaign to protect Stalin was fought on several levels and went through several phases. Initially, they tried to promote Stalin’s lie that the Nazis were responsible. Part and parcel of this strategy was a willingness to label those who promoted the truth as Nazi-dupes and proto-fascsts.

As evidence mounted that Katyn was a Stalinist crime Uncle Joe’s Western apologists threw up their hands and pronounced the whole thing a complicated mystery. They adopted an even-handed approachmaybe Nazis, maybe Soviets, who knows?

Of course, those scholars and pundits had no desire to unravel the mystery themselves. Ignorance is bliss when the truth maybe politically damaging.

Without a doubt the primary tactic of Stalin’s left-wing apologists was to simply bury the massacre and ignore it in their writing, e.g. Eric Hobsbawm:

In his book The Age Of Extreme, published in 1994, he quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40, saying it was merely an attempt to push the Russian border a little further away from Leningrad. He also omits any mention of the massacre of 20,000 Polish soldiers by Russian Secret Police at Katyn.

In the same book, he dismisses the appallingly violent suppression by the Nazis of the Polish resistance in the 1944 Warsaw uprising - when a complacent Soviet army ignored desperate pleas to come to the Poles’ aid - as 'the penalty of a premature uprising'.
Finally, when the evidence is undeniable and they are forced to confront it, they still have ways of minimizing it. Long-hidden information that clears up the mystery can be dismissed as “old news” and minimized as of only “antiquarian interest”. Those scholars who research these questions are painted as “obsessives” and apologists for unsavory causes.

Thus the experts can avoid reckoning with their mistakes, inconvenient questions can be buried, and the essential and all-important narratives can be saved.

All of this happened with the Katyn massacre. It continues to this day. The Left is willing to accept the truth about the crime as long as the damage falls only on Russia and “Stalin’s heir” Putin. But in no way is it acceptable examine Stalin’s apologists in America and the West.

What must be ignored at all costs is what the massacre and its aftermath tells us about the Narratives of “McCarthyism” and the “Red Scare”.

A meaty subject, maybe one deserving its own post.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


On 5 May 1940 Stalin's Politburo ordered the NKVD to liquidate the Polish officers held as POWs after the conquest of Poland. What we now know call the Katyn Massacre claimed the lives of 22,000 men.

There is a Katyn memorial in St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles, IL. It was conceived and created by Wojciech Seweryn. His was an amazing life.

You can hear about it in this informative interview with his daughter.

Remembering Katyn
Seweryn was born one day before the Nazis invaded Poland. He never knew his father who was one of the POWs murdered by the NKVD.

After making his way to the US, he conceived and designed the memorial and then worked for decades to raise the money and create the monument. One year after the memorial was finished, Seweryn was invited to join Poland's president Lech Kaczy?ski at the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre. He died with all on board when the president's plane crashed.

The historiography of the massacre tells us a great deal about the state of the historical profession and also sheds an important new light on the "McCarthy Era" and the so-called Red Scare.

But that is for another post.

Monday, March 04, 2019

"We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Jack Vinson:

Insight - Seeing What Others Don't

Insights by their very nature are difficult to harness into a process. Of course, “process thinking” itself is a “reduce errors” mindset: define the process, operate that way, check for deviations from the process, refine the process. But it is pretty clear from the rest of the book that this is not the way to create an organization that encourages and embraces insight. The way we come to insights is messy by its very nature.

Many organizations have focused so heavily on the idea of being predictable that it has become the ONLY goal. Insights disrupt predictability. And when organizations are already in the midst of disruption and changes being imposed from the outside, it is very difficult to accept changes coming from the inside as well. It is much more likely that they will double down on predictability and reliability: more reports, more update meetings, more analysis. All of which allows very little time or room for insight into new ways of operating.
Jeffrey Phillips:

How to know when the old models don't work any more

Senior executives trust their understanding of the market and prefer to fail based on models of the present and recent past, where they were successful, rather than risk anything on models that aren't proven. This is, also, true of all recorded human history.
Eric Hoffer:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
Reflections on the Human Condition

Why transformation efforts fail (redux)

Friday, March 01, 2019

A different way of looking at the past

The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us -- we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us ... Paradoxical though it may sound to the modern ear, this image of our journey through time may be truer to reality than the medieval and modern feeling that we face the future as we make our way forward into it

Bernard Knox, Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Anyone remember General Stanley McChrystal?

Double-standards are the only standards they have in the MSM

McChrystal was a much decorated officer who was forced to resign when reporter Michael Hastings revealed that his staff spoke disparagingly of President Obama and his administration.

At the time the MSM was nearly unanimous in their reactions.
1. McChrystal had to go because the disrespect shown toward Obama and his appointees was a direct threat to our democracy.
2. McChrystal’s competence was irrelevant. The effect of his resignation might have on the course of the war in Afghanistan was of little importance. All that mattered was that Obama was the elected president and that fact alone demanded a certain degree of respect from all those who worked in the executive branch.
3. The reporter performed a great service by exposing this terrible threat to civilian supremacy and the will of the people.

Of course, the election of Donald Trump forced the MSM to do a complete 180. Now “preserving democracy” requires that people in the executive branch disparage and malign the president on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Reporters do not unmask those who seek to undermine the legitimate authority of the Cammander-in-Chief. Instead they give them a megaphone and help them as they seek to overturn the will of the voters. The MSM aids and abets them even though they know that their sources are breaking the law.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A searing look at a wrongful conviction

This podcast revisits an old case which resulted in a gross miscarriage of justice:

The last half is a searing, raw interview with Josh Kezar who was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit.

Cases like this are a useful reminder that the legal system, like all bureaucracies, is "a giant mechanism operated by pygmies."

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Getting serious about organizational learning

Some hard truths from John Hagel III:

The Threat and Opportunity of Lifelong Learning

Our conversations and media are increasingly consumed by the topic of the "future of work." And, within this topic, one of the buzzwords that has emerged and acquired increasing prominence is "lifelong learning." The message is that, in a more rapidly changing world, we're all going to have to abandon the traditional notion of going to school to learn and then going into a career to apply the learning we've received.

While this is certainly an important message, I'm deeply troubled by the loose way it's communicated - it rarely questions our traditional view of learning, it rarely addresses the issue of motivation and it doesn't systematically explore what's required to support lifelong learning.
His analysis of the organizational barriers to learning are insightful:

But, here's the rub. All of our institutions are built on a model of scalable efficiency and these institutions are deeply ambivalent about, if not openly hostile to, this form of passion. People with this form of passion have a hard time sticking to the script and the process manual - they get bored easily and they're often deeply frustrated, seeing so much opportunity to get to higher and higher levels of performance and frustrated by the obstacles in their way.
This blog has cover some aspects of this problem:

Why transformation efforts fail (redux)

A case study on organizational learning

"Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies"

Friday, February 15, 2019

Nicely put

Ann Coulter:

Interrupting speeches at a private event is the equivalent of sneaking into the New York Times's typesetting room and inserting your own op-eds over theirs.
Or, to update slightly: If someone could hack Facebook so that every link to the Washington Post was re-routed to Breitbart, the MSM would have a meltdown. (OK, another meltdown.) But they treat these attempted hijackings as just a fun news story.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Management, leadership, culture

A bunch of interesting points here:

Drucker Forum 2018: Post-Bureaucratic Management At Vinci And Haier
Need to find out more about the Vinci Group. Their radical decentralization is quite the departure from the norm.

Vinci’s Energy Division for instance has some 75,000 workers in 50 countries and annual revenues of $13 billion. This division is split into 1,600 business units. Yet the Vinci head office is just 50 persons, and it hasn’t grown over the years, even as the business itself has quadrupled in size. “Decentralized management,” Huillard said, “is the only way to grow without becoming fat and strangled by increasing processes."
Denning points out that it is not technology or a new management “theory” that allows them to pull it off:

People are “pulled” by culture and values, not “pushed” by process and procedures.

The role of Vinci’s management is to have the courage to stick to these principles at a time when markets are shaky and external forces are pushing the firm to recentralize and optimize. Sticking to the principles is particularly important in tough times.
This reminds me of something the great advertising man Bill Bernbach used to say:

A principle is not a principle until it costs you money.
I would argue that when it comes to culture and strategy NOTHING matters except management’s behavior when risks are high and pressure is increasing. Everything else is just empty speeches and hollow gestures.

See, for example, Admirals Halsey and Nimitz:

Lessons in Leadership: Admiral William Halsey

Halsey and Nimitz: Leadership and loyalty

Life imitates fiction

I only recently heard about this case.

Murchison Murders
A man in Australia (circa 1929) hears a mystery writer discuss the plot of a story he is working on. The author thinks he may have devised the perfect murder.

Man decides to try it out and the author’s method seems to work. Fortunately, the killer did not follow the instructions completely and ended up convicted and hanged.

Somewhat related

Open Source Terrorist Training

Open source training tips for terrorists

Open Source Training Tips?

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The MSM's long war against the Deplorables

In a 1998 interview with Steven Brill, NBC's Brian Williams was critical of Don Imus-- describing him as "a former railroad employee."

On his radio show, Imus himself cut to the heart of the issue. Brian Williams could have described him as a former cocaine addict or a former drunk. Instead, he took aim at the fact that Imus once did manual labor.

These are the Brahmin attitudes of media "elite". Once upon a time such experience would have given Imus authenticity and seriousness. Now it is seen as disqualifying.

Williams, let us remember, is a college drop out as well as a lying self-promoter. In his case, his disdain may mask the insecurities of a striving conformist who knows that he is a fraud. In trying to suck up to Steven Brill, (Yale and Yale Law School) by bashing Imus, he also revealed the mediocre striver's hatred of the successful rebel.

Some years later Williams would show his true colors again, this time when he tried to dismiss bloggers as unclean and untouchable.

The tremendous growth of online media — especially blogs — in recent years has altered the face of journalism.

“You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe,” said Williams. “All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.”

He added that it’s often difficult to judge the credibility of a blogger. “On the Internet, no one knows if you’ve been to Ramadi or you’ve just been to Brooklyn and have an opinion about Ramadi,” said Williams.
Despite all this, NBC News was happy to welcome Brian Williams back to their team.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Entitlement, simmering resentment, and #LearnToCode

Jill Lepore’s piece on the decline of newspapers (discussed here) appreared just before the latest round of media lay-offs. The timing was perfect and perverse at the same time. Lepore could write the piece secure in her bubble and confident that her readers and the public at large shared her sentimental attachment to newspapers and journalists. Then, almost as her piece was published, those illusions were rudely dispelled, shattered, mocked.

In short, #LearnToCode showed many in the media class that large numbers of the public viewed them with a combination of contempt and anger. (The resulting freakout was as hilarious as it was predictable.)

Early on in her mawkish apologia Lepore actually helped explain both the contempt and the anger though she probably thought she was pleading for compassion and respect.

The newspaper mortality rate is old news, and nostalgia for dead papers is itself pitiful at this point, even though, I still say, there’s a principle involved. “I wouldn’t weep about a shoe factory or a branch-line railroad shutting down,” Heywood Broun, the founder of the American Newspaper Guild, said when the New York World went out of business, in 1931. “But newspapers are different.”
Maybe Heywood Broun did not weep about idle factories in the depth of the Great Depression, but I am sure many men and women did as they pondered the lost jobs and bleak future of their communities. All too many in the MSM seem to share Broun’s sense of entitled callousness the conviction that their jobs are special and their pain deserves singular sympathy.

David Gelernter gives us this vignette from the 1996 campaign trail:

Today's elite loathes the public. Nothing personal, just a fundamental difference in world view, but the hatred is unmistakable. Occasionally it escapes in scorching geysers. Michael Lewis reports in the New Republic on the '96 Dole presidential campaign: 'The crowd flips the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say 'yeah, i'm the Media. Screw You.' The crowd hates the reporters, the reporters hate the crowd-- an even matchup, except that the reporters wield power and the crowed (in effect) wields none.
Drawing Life
Two decades ago journalists thought they were ten feet tall and bullet-proof. They could arrogantly dismiss and insult those who dared criticize them. Today the swagger is gone but they still arrogantly demand pity and compassion from those they insulted.

If anyone wants to understand’s Trump’s ascendancy in the GOP a good place to start is with that confrontation in 1996. And then remember what old John Adams said about the colonists’ continued opposition to Great Britain in 1776:

Resentment coinciding with Principle is a very powerful motive.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Journalism today: A complete abdication of duty

Journalists, according to the cliché, write the first rough draft of history. The cliché, for better or worse, is true. Our understanding of large events is shaped by the news stories and the pop culture ephemera derived from those news stories.

Lately, letting journalists write that first draft has been mostly for the worse. In fact, one can argue a great number of media outlets have reduced rather than increased the public’s understanding of the world and our nation.

Judged by the historian’s standards they are worse than useless.

John Lukacs defined the role of the historian this way:

The purpose of history, too, is less a definite establishment of truth than it is the reduction of untruths.
Thus historians and journalists do good when they uncover truths. They also do good when they debunk untruths masquerading as knowledge. Obviously, then, they fail when they present stories that are wholly false or largely misleading.

To Daniel Boorstin, western science has advanced thanks, in part, to the men and women who make “negative discoveries.” Such discoverers add to the sum of our knowledge when they shatter a misconception posing as fact.

Journalists, either from naivety or self-interest, want us to assess their trade as though it were akin to baseball: It is OK to make a bunch of outs as long as you hit some home runs. Following Lukacs and Boorstin, we can see that this is clearly the wrong way to assess the job journalists do.


The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.
Josh Billings:

It ain’t what a man doesn’t know as makes him a fool, but what he does know as ain’t so.
The MSM usually compounds their initial mistake with the grudging manner in which they correct errors. Knowing what we do about how opinions are formed and how difficult it is to change them honest corrections should be forthright, clear, and prominent. Instead the usual practice is to make them grudgingly and to publish them in obscure corners where they are likely to be missed.

Even worse are those stealth edits that “correct” a story but only for those who come to it late. Those who saw the original false version are free to carry on with their illusions.

The very worst way journalists handle the problem is with follow-up stories that treat matters of fact as mere grist for partisan controversy. These are the infamous “conservatives pounce” sort of stories. It changes the focus from “this story was wrong” to “do you trust these strange people disputing this story.” It actively works against those who advance knowledge by dispelling untruths.

This sort of thing is also uncomfortably close to the totalitarian tactic of “turning statements of fact into questions of motive.” It increases polarization and crushes civility.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

They always blame Americans first

Masha Gessen has concerns about a new museum.

The Unnerving Kitsch of New York City’s New K.G.B. Spy Museum

Imagine if the tyrant in question were not Joseph Stalin but Adolf Hitler. Imagine seeing a giant likeness of his head on a Manhattan sidewalk. Imagine a museum that offered people the option of dialling in to hear a speech by Hitler or Himmler, or invited them to be photographed in an S.S. uniform. It’s hard to imagine the Times giving such a museum an amused review, complete with a picture of the co-curators wearing Nazi uniforms.

The comparison between these two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century is not gratuitous—it is common in historical and political scholarship. And yet, for the American public, an entertaining presentation of what was probably the most murderous secret-police organization in history seems both unproblematic and commercially promising. It’s a peculiar thing to observe, particularly at a moment when Russia—and Russian espionage in particular—looms so large in the American imagination.
In general, I am sympathetic to this argument. We have allowed the crimes of Stalin to remain hidden for far too long.

I just think that Gessen picked the wrong target for her disdain. The American public was, for decades, far more astute and knowledgeable about the horrors of the USSR and the threat from the KGB than were the writers at the New Yorker.

After all, the museum is not opening in Cedar Rapids but in Chelsea. It was not IowaHawk who downplayed Stalinism for grins-- it was the New York Times and Vice.

Anthony Daniels:

There was never a good time, for example, to be anti-communist. Those who early warned of the dangers of bolshevism were regarded as lacking in compassion for the suffering of the masses under tsarism, as well as lacking the necessary imagination to “build” a better world. Then came the phase of denial of the crimes of communism, when to base one’s anti-communism on such phenomena as organised famine and the murder of millions was regarded as the malicious acceptance of ideologically-inspired lies and calumnies. When finally the catastrophic failure of communism could no longer be disguised, and all the supposed lies were acknowledged to have been true, to be anti-communist became tasteless in a different way: it was harping on pointlessly about what everyone had always known to be the case. The only good anti-communist was a mute anti-communist.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Looks like someone picked a bad week to defend Journalism

“out of money, out of hope, it looks like self-destruction….”

Poor Jill Lepore. The New Yorker decided to run her desperate plea for newspapers, journalism, and the MSM at the very moment SERIOUS JOURNALISTS decided to embarrass themselves not once, but repeatedly.

Does Journalism Have a Future?

Even veterans of august and still thriving papers are worried, especially about the fake news that’s risen from the ashes of the dead news. “We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news,” Alan Rusbridger, for twenty years the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, writes in “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.” “There are not that many places left that do quality news well or even aim to do it at all,” Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the New York Times, writes in “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.” Like most big-paper reporters and editors who write about the crisis of journalism, Rusbridger and Abramson are interested in national and international news organizations. The local story is worse.
She sees journalism and journalists as mainly victimsvictims of Wall Street, of tech oligarchs, of social media temptations, of conservative pundits. That is to say, she has the story mostly wrong. Kevin Williamson has a much better take on what lies at the root of the crisis:

Crisis of Citizenship

The Covington fiasco has proved to be a clarifying moment. And here is what has been made clear: Much of the American media is no longer engaged in journalism. It is engaged in opposition research and in what is sometimes known among political operatives as “black p.r.”the sinister twin of ordinary public relations.
And Jim Hanson is pretty good over at the Federalist:

The Media Is Becoming A Megaphone For Foreign Influence Operations

Our information space is broken. There is no way for a normal person to just check in and get the news. At best, we get news analysis colored by the partisan bias of the person or organization presenting it. At worst, we get propaganda tailored to create a narrative or stories presented without fact-checking and validation because they were too juicy to skip. As our country has become more polarized over the past decade, this has become even more prevalent. This past weekend another false narrative blitzed though our public information space. A group of boys from Covington Catholic High School were accused of harassing a Native American elder and shouting racist slurs. My organization debunked this with less than 30 minutes of research, and the information we put into this video was all available to the journalists who smeared these kids, but the tale of a MAGA-hat-wearing mob of teens was too good to pass up. The whole incident seems to have been precipitated by a fake account on Twitter with all the characteristics of an influence operation.
Georgi Boorman, also at the Federalist, is on point:

How Twitter Lets The Mainstream Media Get Away With Constant Slander

Journalists can focus on viral outrage, with no fact-checking, promoting anything that confirms their pre-existing biases.
Lepore tries to skate past a couple of awkward points. She is wise to skate -- the stubborn facts she tries to ignore undercut her main arguments.

For one thing, Lepore casts her story as a melodrama: evil capitalist and tech titans are impoverishing reporters and destroying democracy.

Conglomeration can be good for business, but it has generally been bad for journalism. Media companies that want to get bigger tend to swallow up other media companies, suppressing competition and taking on debt, which makes publishers cowards.
That’s not the whole story and Lepore, as a historian, should know that.

Matt Welch (2013):

It was the classic deal between mostly liberal newsrooms and mostly conservative boardrooms: Close down the competition and use the profits to professionalize the news divisions, instilling a more liberal ethos even while embracing the advertising-friendly pose of objectivity. Then sit back and enjoy the 20 percent profit margins for four decades.
This blog (2007):

The owners were [happy] because monopolies provide a nice stream of predictable earnings. The newsroom liked that the owners were fat and happy because as long as the income statement looked good the owners did not interfere with content. Editors and reporters were free to chases awards, collect bigger paychecks, and indulge their ideological obsessions. Local monopolies also gave journalists bigger megaphones and a de facto victory in “explanation space”.
Basically, the MSM had everything in its favor: politically dis-engaged ownership, unchallenged near-monopolies, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Then they recklessly over-played their hand right when technology undercut their position. They lost credibility, then customers, and finally employers.

Now, about those tech titans….

More alarming than what the Times and the Post failed to do was how so much of what they did do was determined less by their own editors than by executives at Facebook and BuzzFeed. If journalism has been reinvented during the past two decades, it has, in the main, been reinvented not by reporters and editors but by tech companies, in a sequence of events that, in Abramson’s harrowing telling, resemble a series of puerile stunts more than acts of public service.

Even as news organizations were pruning reporters and editors, Facebook was pruning its users’ news, with the commercially appealing but ethically indefensible idea that people should see only the news they want to see.
Facebook may be greedy and puerile but the ZuckerBorg is far less worrisome than the dogma animating Professor Lepore. Helping people read what they want to is apparently a mortal sin to those who worship in the High Church of Journalism.

the commercially appealing but ethically indefensible idea that people should see only the news they want to see.
That is castor oil journalism with a strong dash of proto-totalitarianism.

Lepore seems to be in the same camp as Kristof of The Times:

The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.
That’s the rub for people like Lepore and Kristof. They abhor the fact that people like them and people they like have lost control over explanation space. It is becoming harder and harder to build and sustain Narratives. Wrong Think is allowed to spread. Facecrimes go unpunished.

Nurse Ratchet can no longer dole out her castor oil.

And that makes people people like Kristof, Lepore, and Brian Stelter sad.


The Brooks-Sailer boundary: How the Deciders decide what you should read

Why the MSM can’t reform itself

No, the market does not make newspapers liberal

Way-points on the path to irrelevance and oblivion

Duke lacrosse: Auto de fe

Harvard verus Harvard