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There appears to be a rule in blogging that, unless something really strange happens, the blogger should produce at least one post a day.

Today you’ll find a new tab below the banner, “Fiction”. In it is the first chapter of my epic (and unsold) novel Temporary Duty. You will note some anachronisms — for instance, it is now unlikely that there will ever be a CV named Albert Gore, Jr., and if there’s a Clinton it’ll probably be Bill — but it was written almost five years ago, and in general I think it holds up as well as it ever did.

I probably won’t post the whole thing. It’s about 200K words, which is one big reason it didn’t sell; another is that the first third moves pretty slowly. I don’t have the hang of WordPress’s “Pages” function just yet — it would appear that pages after the main page can only have one post in them, for instance, and I’d be grateful for advice if anyone has any.

Let me know what you think. I’ve got quite a bit of this stuff, some finished, some not.

Whenever the posts on any blog tend strongly in one particular direction or another, we find that there are people who stop by to disagree. Some of them do so in fairly crude fashion, and some of them appear not to get the point; and, especially when the blog has a well-established commentariat, some of the commenters often try to run the “troll” off by lambasting him or her with insults.

Please don’t do that here, OK? The insults from trolls don’t bother me much. I’ve been insulted a number of times in my life already; I can’t always preserve my equanimity, and when cut I bleed as profusely as any other mammal, but intellectually I regard “insult” as something closely approaching a null concept, a meaningless word.

An insult is a statement making a negative observation upon the subject’s person and/or behavior. Like any other statement, it is either true or false.

If the statement is false, two further possibilities occur: the person making the statement either knows it is false or does not. In the first case the person delivering the “insult” is a liar; in the second he (or she, of course) is ignorant. In either case the statement should be ignored, although the polite course is to assume ignorance and attempt to correct it — if nothing else it will enable you to differentiate between liar and ignoramus.

If the statement is true, it describes a real fault or deficiency on the part of the person addressed. Again, two cases occur: the fault is one that can be remedied, or it is not. In the first case, the person issuing the “insult” has done the target a favor — although it may be hard, emotionally, to accept that. In the second it is mere boorishness, again deserving nothing but contempt.

If someone tells me I smell bad, I should take a shower and change clothes. If someone tells me I’m ugly, I merely curl my lip. (WordPress offers me the option of posting a picture. I have refrained from doing so. There’s a reason for that.) If someone tells me I support the war in Iraq out of a desire to see the white man’s boot on the neck of brown people, I attempt to correct the misapprehension; if they persist, I dump them into the oubliette with the rest of the lying and/or maliciously ignorant sons-of-(whatever)s. They are boors. I don’t let my mental state be controlled by boors.

I commend this attitude to you as a means of preserving your self-respect in the face of attack. It can be difficult to maintain when the subject of the insult is emotionally significant, but we are human beings and supposedly rational, and it represents a rational approach to the matter. If you want to discuss my, or another commenter’s, ancestry (or lack thereof), living conditions, sexual proclivities, or standard of personal hygiene in vociferously negative terms, go do it somewhere else, OK?

One of the real, continuing problems with talking to Leftoids, whether they call themselves “Leftists”, “Progressives”, “Liberals”, or just “Democrats”, is that you can almost never tell, at least at first, just which sort you’re interacting with. By far the majority of them are good-hearted folk with good intentions who just don’t think things through.

An excellent example is “cynn”, an occasional commenter at Protein Wisdom. cynn is by no means stupid, and my position puzzles her no end. “Don’t you know there are people who get sick, and can’t pay for treatment?” she would say. “Obama wants to set up a system to let the public help them pay, and you oppose that. Why so heartless? Do you want people to get sick and die without help?”

Well, no, I don’t want people to get sick and die without help, although sometimes I’m afraid it isn’t possible to do anything about it. And yes, being something like $13K in the hole for doctor bills for myself and my wife, and not being sure if I’ll still have electric power after Wednesday, I’m acutely aware that there are people who get sick and can’t pay for treatment. (Note that Bobbe and I got the treatment; the question, now, is how to pay back the people who helped us.)

The basic source of cynn’s confusion lies in the term “the public”. What she has in mind is people working together, helping one another out. But there is no “public” in the sense she’s conceiving it, in the sense most good-hearted, unthinking Leftoids conceive it; no entity called “the public” that can act, can help people, can take up contributions and pass them on to the less fortunate.

Describing something as a “public function” or a “public option” is a lie. As an adjective, “public” has a useful meaning, usually deprecatory — nudity with the shades drawn and a Significant Other co-operating can be a lovely thing; public nudity is generally a nuisance for everybody else. As a noun, “public” can have one of two meanings in normal usage: something like the vector sum of the actions of all its members, or something more like a “committee of the whole”.

When you get a big enough society, almost all the actions end up cancelling out. It can’t actually do anything; it just sprawls across the sociopolitical landscape like an amoeba. The “committee” definition is worse. The intelligence of a committee equals the sum of the intelligences of the members, divided by the square of the number of members (some authorities make it the factorial of the number). A small committee is smart enough to get useful work done; by the time you get to twenty or so you’re in flatworm territory, and a “committee” of three-hundred-plus million Americans is dumber than anything with a notochord, and possibly dumber than anything that can move by itself. “The Public” can’t act. It’s more like an algal mat, clinging to the rocks and being torn by the waves.

What we have isn’t the Public, it’s the Government — and that’s a different kettle of piranha entirely. Worse, what we actually have is the Government bureaucracy.

In 1976, science fiction writer Larry Niven and multimath[1] Jerry Pournelle wrote their version of Inferno, with their own selection of people from history and characters from the modern world getting their “just deserts”. (The book is more fun if you know something about science fiction fandom and its in-jokes.) One of the characters in it is Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian ruler remembered for issuing the first known written code of Law. Those same Babylonians were also the ones who invented the notion of detailed records for tax and management purposes; accordingly, Niven and Pournelle declared Hammurabi the inventor of bureaucracy. As such, the poor old fellow is sentenced to Hell — but only until he can put in his resignation. The catch is, the resignation has to be in the proper format with all the blanks filled in, no mistakes allowed, all done in cuneiform on a clay tablet before the clay dries hard in the furnace heat of the Pit.

A just punishment, indeed. Anyone who’s ever dealt extensively with, or from within, a bureaucracy knows how it works. The bureaucrat’s attention is fixed on, first, his or her own position, perquisites, and compensation; second on those of his or her fellow bureaucrats, both in competition with them and in concert when seeking budget for operations and expansion; third on the demands of his or her supervisors, taking care to minimally meet their requirements to save his or her position with minimal effort; and lastly (if at all) on the nominal functions of the Department and the people who need those functions performed. We often think of “bureaucrat” as being almost synonymous with “Government”, but that’s a mistake. Private companies above a certain size develop bureaucracies every bit as ponderous as anything Government can manage, requiring as much or more paperwork and red tape to get anything done.

Leadership doesn’t matter much to a bureaucracy unless the leadership also has both the power and the stones to fire people wholesale. Individuals within the bureaucracy may be punished for failure to perform; the Department, as a whole, soldiers on in the same old fashion, with the survivors pursing their lips and shaking their heads at the unfairness of it all, while spending more and more time covering their own butts and less and less on their nominal functions. Don’t talk about the “profit motive”, either. In any corporation, there are maybe three people who care about the Company’s profits. The rest of them, if they consider profit at all, disapprove of it. After all, if the Company made umpteen million dollars last year, surely it could come through with a teenyweeny raise…

In the case of Health Care, people object to medical funding decisions being made by Corporate bureaucrats sitting in cubicles, with managers looking over their shoulders and bitching about budget, and subject to a book of Corporate Rules. They therefore propose the “Public Option” — which, in the end, comes out to medical funding decisions being made by Government bureaucrats sitting in cubicles, with managers looking over their shoulders and bitching about budget, subject to a whole bookcase full of Federal Regulations which their SEIU contract says they aren’t obliged to know. I’m sorry. I don’t see the advantage, and it’s not got much to do with how much it costs.

[1] That’s a science fiction fan joke.

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September 2009