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From Major Chuck, via Mostly Cajun:

The AUTHOR is currently under the care of mental health and other medical professionals, currently takes prescribed pain-management and psychotropic medications, and is under treatment for both Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress. So take anything written as either the medicated ramblings of a mad man, or as the official policy and position of the United States Army. You will be wrong in both cases.



Can we stop pretending the Obamacare decision is in doubt?

It’s a wonderful chance for theater, including requests to put the arguments on teevee for the first time, and there’s a lot of public angst and debate, but I reckon we all know, in our heart of hearts, how it’ll come down. The Court will listen to hours of legalisms, will deliberate long enough to get everybody on the edges of their seats, and then will issue a multipage opinion with multipage dissents attached, all of which will be an attempt to obfuscate the plain conclusion: Of course we can do that! We’re the Government!

If I were privileged to present anything before the Supremes, I would ask them to help me out. Here’s the deal: I would like to do something that isn’t subject to regulation by the Congress and/or the Executive agencies to which the Congress has delegated its powers.  Never mind why; think of it as a hobby or an  idle entertainment. Here in Texas, there are people who have a lot of fun trying to visit all the County Courthouses — there’s no real point to it, but they find it enjoyable. Same here — I’d just like to check that box on my bucket list.

So, Mr. Roberts, what might that be? Consult your colleagues as necessary.  There are some things that can be eliminated a priori. I can’t buy anything, because that’s commerce and under present doctrine all commerce is “Interstate” and subject to regulation. I also can’t refrain from buying anything I don’t want, because that, too, “affects interstate commerce” and is thus subject to regulation. Can I breathe? Well, as far as I can tell I can inhale, but if I exhale I emit carbon dioxide, which the Court has ruled can be regulated (under what pretext I don’t pretend to understand). Anything else? Bueller?


…at least according to the President. (via The Professor)

What this is, is the opening shots in the inevitable decay of a Socialist economy. When productivity starts dropping and there are fewer resources available for redistribution, the leadership notes that the people aren’t working as hard as they used to. The obvious conclusion is that the people have gotten lazy, and the nomenklatura then start on a campaign to get people to work harder and more effectively. Look up some political posters from the USSR of the Twenties and Thirties for examples.

It isn’t true. What’s happening is that people are working more virtuously — in Socialist class-warfare terms.

The fundamental postulate of class warfare is that people who have “more” are to be envied. If they won’t give some (much) of their “more” to those who have “less”, they are Evil. People who are evil should be punished, and one way of punishing them is to take their stuff away.

Productive people always have “more” than unproductive ones, and as a rule feel proprietorial toward it. If they made it or grew it themselves, they feel that it’s theirs and will defend it. That means they don’t want to give it to those who have “less”, and under class warfare that makes them Evil. Nobody wants to be considered Evil, so people avoid doing things that gain them that label. Since productivity always results in the charge, the people choose virtue over evil — and productivity disappears. If there is no production, there is no wealth for the leadership class to control. The leadership class sees that and concludes that the people are lazy, where in reality the people are choosing virtuous behavior in the terms the leadership class have defined.

Several people have noted that college students today turn up their noses at the prospect of working for private corporations, instead choosing “public service” (a.k.a. Government employment) or NGOs that promote Good Causes. (See also: “Occupy Wall Street”) Working for a corporation would result in the corporation making a profit and therefore having “more” which it doesn’t choose to give to those who have “less”. It is therefore Evil to work for a corporation, and virtuous to work in organizations that attempt to suppress the Evil and distribute the “more” to those who have “less”. People who choose virtue in that context supply two hits to the economy. They do not themselves produce, and they work — work hard and virtuously — to suppress Evil productive activity.

A working definition of “Socialist” might well be “somebody who doesn’t realize that that cycle exists”. No Socialist can recognize the process, because it directly contradicts their ideals. They see that productivity is dropping and that as a result they have fewer resources to redistribute, and have no explanation for the effect. Since productivity is the result of work, they conclude that the people don’t want to work — that they are “lazy”.

But they can go to the factories and mills, or to the bureaucracies that support them, and see people working hard and virtuously. “Lazy” isn’t a sufficient explanation. Something must be preventing production, some malignant force that stops the production of wealth and makes their noble goals unattainable. The obvious candidate for that force is the people who say that Socialism doesn’t work. Those evil bastards must be sabotaging the virtuous folk, reducing production, creating poverty because they like poverty. If they didn’t like poverty, they would overwhelmingly support the actions of the Socialist idealists to eliminate it. It’s sabotage, pure and simple; tossing monkey-wrenches into the works just for the delight of preventing Good Things from happening. You’ll find those posters in the pre-WWII Soviet Union as well, growing more strident as the years pass.

I, personally, give it ’til about the first of the year before Barack Obama starts out on a major campaign against the “wreckers” and “saboteurs” who prevent him from achieving his Noble Goals. He and his sycophants have already started out in a small way, but for the moment the only villains they’ve identified are the “obstructionists” of the Republican-led House of Representatives and Republican Senators. It’s clear, though, that “obstructionism” isn’t sufficient to achieve the effects visible; thus the second step, “laziness”. Look for speeches vilifying “wreckers” and “saboteurs” starting in about January, if not a bit before. If you want to help Obama & Co. out, look up and translate some of Lenin’s speeches from the mid-Twenties. There’s plenty of material there that could go straight to the teleprompter without much more than substituting American idiom for Russian, and the original speeches were fairly effective; no reason to work at inventing something new. After all, that would be productive.

(Update: Reynolds reminds us that “hoarders” should be added to “wreckers” and “saboteurs”. )

In our modern, tech-driven age one of the major subsets of monopoly is proprietary data formats. If you can set it up so that the only way to access the data is to pay you for a way to read it, you can rake in the cash. The version of that that people my age are most familiar with is the VHS vs. Betamax wars, in which Sony tried hard to make video tape inaccessible to anyone who didn’t pay them, but it was a standard tactic in the early days of computers. Right up through the early 1980s, all of the computer manufacturers and most providers of sophisticated programs made their data formats proprietary and incompatible with anyone else’s to the extent possible, and employed legions of lawyers to prevent others from creating conversion software that would allow users to escape “lock-in”.

Nowadays we’re seeing a repeat of that tactic in electronic book formats. The Sony rôle is taken by Amazon, with proprietary formats for the Kindle, and the VHS-equivalent is .epub, a semi-open standard being adopted by Amazon’s smaller competitors. Kindles won’t read .epub, and Amazon keeps the specifications of its own formats close to its vest and won’t license them (or won’t except at prohibitive cost), so competitive e-readers can’t load them. They have in common the .mobi format, a legacy of MobiPocket, but .mobi doesn’t have a lot of the features both manufacturers and users want in an electronic book.

Unfortunately for Amazon (and for anybody else seeking to establish a proprietary format) the world is full of programmers who learned from the early days of computers to hate that tactic with the heat of a thousand suns, and are prepared to put their coding effort where their hearts are. Conversion from Betamax to VHS and vice-versa required a complex, expensive machine; there weren’t many companies with the capability to develop and manufacture such a thing; the result was that it was easy to detect and deter violators of the Betamax licensing provisions. Conversion from any computer file format to any other requires… a computer and suitable software; computers are ubiquitous, and computer software requires programmers to stay up late and code; it’s virtually impossible to even detect a programmer punching keys in the basement of a house somewhere in Eastern Europe, let alone find out what he or she is working on so as to deter them from that attempt. The predictable result is conversion software, which is already starting to appear.

The three I’m familiar with are Calibre (note the spelling), Jutoh, and Scrivener. They each have a different focus: Calibre is primarily library management and conversion; Jutoh focuses on the .epub format, and is a way to edit files in that format more or less directly; and Scrivener, which has been popular on Apple for years and is now available for the PC, is primarily utility software for writers but can read and write a number of different formats. Calibre is free. The other two are payware, but the cost is within reach of anybody who can afford $200 for an ebook reader in the first place.

For the owner of an ebook reader who isn’t concerned with authoring, Calibre is the right choice. All of the readers come with (proprietary) library management software. Calibre aims to replace that, and can connect directly to most readers; its conversion capabilities are extensive, and are or can be made more or less transparent. Hook your Kindle to your PC, use Calibre to download and file a .epub from B&N, and transfer that to the reader. It’s all automatic, with the only thing you’d notice is that it takes a little longer than a simple file transfer. It isn’t perfect — the format it’ll convert to is .mobi, not .avi or the newer Amazon format, so if the book is complex the result may be missing some features. We can expect that Amazon will field a legion of lawyers to make sure that continues to be the case, but if all you want is to read the book, the process works fine.

For authors who are already using a compatible workflow (which most are: Microsoft Word as the origin document) Jutoh works well. Its developers are directly connected to those working on .epub, so it probably has the most complete set of facilities for managing that format. Once again, its access to the Kindle depends primarily on the .mobi format, so some of the gee-whiz features may be missing. It’s easier for an author than Calibre, because Calibre’s focus on library management creates some clumsiness, especially for incremental development, i.e., editing and new versions.

Scrivener comes closer to matching my writing workflow, but it isn’t very useful as a general file-conversion utility. The capability is there and usable, but that isn’t what the program was designed for. Mac-using writers have raved about Scrivener for a long time now, and having it available for the Microsoft environment will probably attract a host of new users, but they’ll mostly be writers or wannabees. A person who just wants to read ebooks and doesn’t intend to write them will find it formidably complex; Not Recommended for such an individual. Again, its access to the Kindle is mainly via MobiPocket.

The common thread in all this is that Amazon is vigorously developing new, better, flashier proprietary formats, leaving the .mobi format as an orphan, and employing lawyers to enforce the full rigor of copyright law to freeze competitive e-readers and the developers of conversion software out of their revenue stream. If Jeff Bezos were to ask my advice (not bloody likely!) I would tell him to abandon that approach. The whole point of .epub is that it’s a relatively open, common format, and later versions have a good feature set. If it doesn’t have a feature Amazon wants (other than proprietary lock-in) the .epub developers would welcome assistance from Amazon’s highly competent army of programmers to incorporate it.

They won’t do that. Thanks to some very smart moves in other venues, Amazon is the Big Kahuna of the ebook, and sees their competitors as ankle-biters whose primary utility is that they’re useful as defenses when the SEC comes calling. “No, of course we’re not a monopoly, look at all the competitors we have!” No doubt their bean-counters are sniggering at the vain attempts to depose them from their perch, as the cash rolls in.

I would urge them to caution and avoidance of complacency. In the late Seventies Sony was the Big Kahuna of video tape, making money at a ferocious rate and prepared to deploy schools of legal sharks to maintain its position. It’s worth noting in that respect that Beta/Betamax/Betacord was, in fact, a superior format, with better definition and more satisfactory synchronization than VHS — but VHS was easier to build, and didn’t require substantial payment$ to Sony in order to deploy it. Smaller manufacturers, working on a shoestring to bring product to market, adopted VHS, and Betamax was eventually nibbled to death rather than either winning or going out in a blaze of glory. Beta was always the preferred option of professionals in the video business, and now that DVDs and Blu-Ray have more or less eliminated video tape from the consumer market, most of the surviving tape users are still working in Beta — but they’re a small market, and always have been. When tape was “live”, consumers went with VHS, and Sony failed at its attempt to lock everybody in to its revenue stream.

Something similar is very likely to happen in the ebook business, although the situations aren’t precisely parallel. Unlike what Sony did, at present Amazon isn’t charging a premium to users of its format(s), but if it achieves lock-in the clamor from the bean-counters to start doing that will be well-nigh irresistible. Even if they don’t, there are enough programmers out there who despise proprietary formats that the pressure to decode and reverse-engineer them will be equally great, and keeping the lid on via deploying platoons of copyright lawyers is a short-term solution at best, because if the decoding/encoding system escapes onto the Internet at any point the effort will have been futile.

Again, at the moment Amazon isn’t acting like a monopoly or near-monopoly, but there are a growing number of people who recall the near-inevitable consequences of the establishment of a monopoly and View With Alarm the growing power. One thing Bezos and company could do to at least partially head that off would be either to open their formats to competitors (and conversion software writers) or to adopt a relatively open standard. It would reassure people that, even if the Big Kahuna achieves full dominance in the market, others would continue to have access, and would go a long way toward decreasing any feelings of resentment that might result in either programmers or the legal system attacking them. Embrace .epub, Jeff. You’ll spend less for lawyers and programmers both, and get fewer people mad at you.

But since he won’t, conversion software is needed. It will be available, too. It already is, and more will come along. Users of e-readers should seek it out and support it, if for no other reason than to keep Amazon honest.

John Scalzi is exactly who he is. Disappointment happens when expectations aren’t met.

Scalzi’s discussion of the Penn State child-rape case cites Ursula K. Leguin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a parallel. It’s a false analogy. Though I mostly don’t like Ms. Leguin’s work, in this case she had a specific didactic purpose and executed it quite well –but to cite that story as analogous to any real-world case, especially as encountered by an American, is an abdication of responsibility.

One of the most-discussed science fiction stories is “The Cold Equations”, by Tom Godwin. In that story, the characters are faced with a situation where they have no good choices. The best they can do is to minimize their losses, and Godwin set the story up so that the minimum loss is a large one indeed. People often argue about the story by opining that the setup isn’t realistic — that the ship would have extra fuel, or that some other condition would be changed, allowing the minimum loss to be less, or avoided altogether. That isn’t the point. The way the situation is framed, staying within the parameters Godwin carefully set, the choices are as stated — and are horrific at best.

“Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” is Leguin’s (successful) attempt to build a “Cold Equations” scenario in the moral sphere, rather than in physics. The people involved can accept or reject the situation as Leguin constructed it, but there are no other choices, the author having carefully precluded them. If you stay within the premises and structure Leguin set up, accepting evil (and thus becoming party to it) or accepting poverty and deprivation are the only possibilities.

Any story is a world to itself, and must be discussed and thought of while staying consistent with its premises and structure. The real world isn’t a story, and there are things available to real-world actors that don’t exists for story-protagonists, especially protagonists in carefully-constructed didactic plays like “The Cold Equations” and “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”. But look at Scalzi’s first iteration of a response:

1. When, as an adult, you come come across another adult raping a small child, you should a) do everything in your power to rescue that child from the rapist, b) call the police the moment it is practicable.

Note that choice (a) is one that is not available to the protagonists of “Those Who Walk…”. It is, in fact, the Moe Lane solution: “The answer is to SMITE THE EVIL.” The events (yeah, I’m trying to keep the emotional level down a bit) occurred in a sports facility. Sports, to a close first approximation, are a way to sublimate violent impulses into constructive, or at least non-destructive, activity. As such, sports employ all kinds of tools that are approximations of what are normally “weapons”. In particular, a sports facility will have lots of different types of bludgeons lying about. Call them “baseball bats” or “hockey sticks” or whatever, they are modifications of things warriors used to carry around and use to bash their opponents. If you, as an adult, come across another adult raping a small child in a sports facility, there are all kinds of tools available to you for use in abating the nuisance — and a man raping a small child is likely to be both in a position to receive such abatement in an effective manner, and sufficiently preoccupied to give you an opportunity to administer abatement.

Scalzi goes on to add:

2. If your adult son calls you to tell you that he just saw another adult raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, and then asks you what he should do, you should a) tell him to get off the phone with you and call the police immediately, b) call the police yourself and make a report, c) at the appropriate time in the future ask your adult son why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

Note choice (c). Scalzi’s instincts are at least partly correct: he sees that it is the obligation of the witness to attempt to abate the nuisance. Why, then, does he cite the Leguin story, in which none of the protagonists has the power to abate the nuisance, as a parallel?

Omelas the City is a paradise for those who have accepted evil and are complaisant. It would seem that this is the parallel Scalzi sees — that the witnesses of the rapes had a good thing going for themselves and didn’t want to upset the applecart, so accepted the evil. But in his later discussions he talks about cowardice, and plainly is thinking in terms of grabbing the perp and shoving him away from his victim, which might not be practical for the average no-muscles dweeb faced with a practicing sports figure. But that’s not the only choice — a potential intervener is not faced with uncounterable danger to himself. There are weapons available, and the whole point of a “weapon” is to maximize damage to the opponent while minimizing damage to the wielder. That’s what a weapon is for.

But that third choice, unavailable in Omelas, isn’t available in Scalzi’s world, either. Scalzi’s a liberal, not as much of a leftoid as many are but right there in with the softie wing of the philosophy. “People”, in Scalzi’s world, don’t use weapons; individuals who do are eeeevil or at minimum misguided. The option of smiting a rapist with a Louisville Slugger simply doesn’t occur, and since it doesn’t, the potential intervener is faced with the Omelas choice: accept evil and become a party to it, or walk away.

That’s the other way Leguin’s story isn’t parallel. In the story, those who walk away are refusing to accept evil but must pay the price of being impoverished. In the real world, walking away is the same as accepting the evil. Every person has the responsibility to at least attempt to defeat evil when it is encountered. Refusing to confront the evil is another way of accepting it, and failing to use the tools at hand when confronting evil, thus placing yourself in danger of not only personal damage but of failure to effectively confront the evil, is simply a variant of “refusal to confront”.

The greatest failure of modern “liberalism”, to which Scalzi fully subscribes, is the deliberate choice of ineffective means of confronting evil. Choosing marches and “civil disobedience” and attempts to reason with the perpetrator, while not only rejecting the choice of a quick blow to the spine-skull joint of the perp but actively preventing others from taking such measures, is not confronting evil. It is complaisance to it.

Barack H. Obama will be re-elected in 2012.

I don’t usually make predictions, especially that far in advance, but that one approximates a no-brainer. The subordinate prediction, that Mitt Romney will never be elected President of the United States, requires roughly the same level of foresight.

The media-based “vetting” process is designed and skilfully constructed to identify the Republican candidate most like a Democrat. Since detecting the difference between a Romney administration and an Obama administration would be impossible without a mass spectrograph and a sensitive gravitometer, that’s Mitt. (And before you object, yes, that includes Supreme Court appointments.) Plastic imitations are only popular when they’re cheaper than the real thing. Faced at the polls with the choice between a real Democrat and ersatz, people will either vote for the real one or stay at home.

There are, as usual, some important issues facing the country. As usual, important issues are also uncomfortable issues, so people prefer to avoid them in favor of the People magazine level, i.e., delicious sex-related “scandals” and what the candidates did when they were fifteen (the two are often related, of course). Also as usual, any important issue disfavors Democrats, so the media are all-out to shift the focus to things that are titillating but barely if at all relevant. And again as usual, the easy path for Republican candidates and their staffs is to exploit the media’s predilections in order to cut down the competition for the nomination. It is, after all, the only way to get teevee time, but it’s positive feedback reinforcing the search for the most-nearly Democratic Republican.

Mitt Romney could at least partly short-circuit that if he cared to, but clearly he does not. If the Romney organization met each media blitz against his Republican challengers by emphasizing his stand on the issues and being publicly insistent on that, a good deal of the irrelevancy could be put behind us. The difficulty there is that Romney and his staff are comfortably aware that he is the Republican most like a Democrat, and thereby well-nigh immune to the sort of challenge currently facing, e.g., Herman Cain. That being the case, Romney just sits the disputes out, careful not to let his satisfied smile at seeing another challenger cut down show to anyone likely to publicize it. Of course, the media and their Democratic Party co-conspirators are busily saving up bits; they won’t use them against Romney while he’s contesting against other Republicans, but once the general election is on there will be damaging stuff emerging in every news cycle. Why that concept is, or at least appears to be, obscure to Romney & Co. is a mystery, of course, just as it was with John McCain, but it’s true nevertheless.

Republicans, especially those with Tea Party sympathies, would be well advised to regard the Presidential nomination process as a sideshow, to be enjoyed during free time but not taken seriously. It does have the value that it will distract a great deal of media attention from the lower-level races where success is actually possible. Have fun, and pile on when you have the opportunity, but the work is getting Republican candidates with Tea Party allegiance elected at every possible level below the Presidency, from the Senate right down to dog catcher in places where that’s an elective office. As an important secondary effort, it is also needful to root the would-be Democrats out of the Party organization. They’re too useful to the Romneys and McCains to leave in place. It ain’t glamorous, but it might allow something to be saved in all the mess.

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November 2011