God of the Machine – Page 53 – Culling my readers to a manageable elite since 2002.
Aug 222002

Today Steven Den Beste, interesting as always, cites Ken Arrow’s result that “all electoral systems are flawed in one way or another.” This is true, as far as it goes, but inexact. More precisely, Arrow proved that no electoral system can, in every case, so long as more than two choices are involved, accurately reflect the subjective preferences of the electorate. Still more precisely, he proved that no election can meet all of a fairly long list of plausible-sounding “fairness conditions.” Den Beste confuses two kinds of failure when he writes:

The same thing goes for electoral systems. No matter which you consider, it is always possible to construct a scenario where it fails and clearly gets the wrong answer. Arrow proved it. What you do, instead, is to try to make sure that failures are rare, and the consequences of them are not serious. Ideally you’d like to engineer the electoral system in such a way that structurally it is resistant to critical failures, but that may not be possible and it may be necessary to get above the level of signal processing and start applying semantic filtration.

In the case of the American electoral system, the founders decided that there were certain specific issues which were much too important to risk. The consequences of failure in these areas was perceived to be so great that even if the chance of failure was low, it had to be prevented. So they passed the Bill of Rights.

Arrow’s result assumes mob rule, electoral preference, to be the desideratum: he addresses himself to means, not ends. The Founders had larger considerations. They designed the Bill of Rights to protect certain liberties against mob rule. If the American electorate votes to repeal, say, freedom of assembly, this is a catastrophe, but not a “failure” by Arrow’s lights. I agree with Den Beste about “the wisdom of the Founders to put certain decisions beyond the reach of the normal electoral process” and I share his preference for “a system with a high degree of noise rejection,” but these questions have nothing to do with group decision theory. Suppose it were possible to design a “perfect” election, in the Arrovian sense. Wouldn’t the Bill of Rights still be an excellent idea?

Aug 212002

Curated by Alex Boese, who claims that most of the good ones that are missing (like my favorite, Spectrism) will be in his book, and I believe him. The 20th century was the Golden Age of the Hoax. Most of Marcel Duchamp’s career, for instance. Or all of Andy Warhol’s.

Aug 202002

Norah Vincent has a new blog, and she complains straightaway that the trouble with the media is that they’re too doctrinaire! Not “ecumenical” enough. No, seriously:

Why does not a single sustainable and consistently non-doctrinaire editorial/op-ed page exist in any newspaper in this country? (The Washington Post is the closest we come.) Why is there not a single opinion journal or magazine out thereon the web or in printthat truly cant be pegged as liberal or conservativeand usually rigidly so?
Every publication has a mission, and none of them is, as one editor I know called it, ecumenical. Theyve all got an agenda, a bias, a slant, and in some cases a virtual campaign of rhetorical terror that would hark back to the days of yellow journalism, if only it were so honest.

Passing briefly over “a virtual campaign of rhetorical terror,” which is in pretty bad taste, we see a startlingly naked plea for what Harold Ickes once called “a wide-open mind.” It is not possible to approach a topic de novo, and it wouldn’t be advisable even if it were. One reasons about politics, or any other subject, by applying some general principles to the matter at hand. These go by many names, pejorative and otherwise — agenda, slant, bias, ideology, doctrine, dogma — sometimes they’re true, sometimes false, but principles are still indispensable. Now it is perfectly just to complain that certain publications — let’s say The New York Timeshide their ideology, or are so smug as to believe that they have no ideology, because everyone (who’s anyone) thinks the way they do. (Vincent aptly names this “The Echo Chamber Effect.”) This isn’t her chief gripe, however. She cites The New Republic and National Review by name. Both of these magazines have an ideology, but neither exactly skulks about in disguise. As for The New Republic, which Mickey Kaus accurately describes as “left on welfare, right on warfare,” is it rigidly liberal or rigidly conservative? How about Reason? The Atlantic? Slate even?

Vincent proceeds to claim that people who own opinion journals are actually interested only in lobbying politicians and buying votes:

Private money keeps most journals going, and not even a multi-billionaire with nothing else to spend his thrift on is going to waste millions every year on something so noble as ideas for their own sake. Thats not what his magazine is for. Its to further his ideological agenda and, if all goes according to plan, to buy hefty political influence in one of the few remaining ways that John McCain wont ever be able to get his hands on. Opinion. Real votes are being bought. Real politicians being lobbied. Thats the only thing that makes these journals worth the money their owners spend on them, I suspect.

Turns out people write opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers to persuade readers to change their, uh, opinions. And this whole sneaky process is bankrolled by the owners, who may even have “ideological agendas” of their own. Golly, I never knew.

According to Vincent, though, we readers are too stupid to change our minds anyway:

The sad truth is that most of us subscribe to magazines and newspapers because we need them to tell us what we think. Remember the voir dire process when you went to do jury duty? Did the lawyers ask you what magazines you subscribe to? If so they did it because its a thumbnail, and for my money, a remarkably reliable way, to get a sense of who you are and what you think. Most of us dont want to be challenged. Were not intellectually secure or curious enough to want to know what the other guy thinks.

Alert to my multi-billionaire readers, and you know who you are: don’t bankroll newspapers and magazines! You’re wasting your cash!

But enough. Vincent has objectivity exactly backwards. It consists in examining your principles, changing them if necessary, making them explicit, and applying them rigorously. “Balance” and “ecumenicism” are J-school bugaboos. Give me more good honest ideology, not less.

Aug 192002

Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs lifts the choice excerpt (at God of the Machine we do not say “money graf”) from a charming “lesson plan” of the National Education Association:

Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise.

Disregard the moral equivalence tripe for a second; that’s NEA standard, you don’t expect anything else. Look instead at the logic in the first sentence. Blaming is especially difficult because someone is at fault — more difficult, apparently, than it would be if no one were at fault.

Now consider the second sentence. “In this country we still believe all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise”? Not exactly. No, strike that: not even close. In this country we certainly don’t convict without solid legal evidence, but belief is of course a different matter altogether. The author of this sentence, one Brian Lippincott, “affiliated with the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the John F. Kennedy University in California,” ought to meet my mother, who regularly punished me and my siblings in the absence of solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities.

It shocks me, still, that anyone who thinks this badly has a job teaching children.

(Postscript: I can’t find the actual document anywhere on NEA’s site, only the Washington Times story quoting it. If anyone has the link or the document itself, please send it to me and I will post it.)

(Update: Aha! The actual document. Thanks to Bill Quick for digging it up. Bill also points out what I overlooked, that the people who write NEA lesson plans don’t do much teaching at all. )

Aug 172002

Jacques Barzun said you can tell a civilization is in decline when it starts making dictionaries, compilations, and lists. So what does it mean to make lists of bad beer commercials? These five aren’t the worst, exactly, only the most shameless in their appeal to the LCD.*

5. Miller Lite. Tastes great, if your idea of a cocktail is horse piss and sand. Less filling, so you can get tanked yet stay nimble for that bar fight you’ve been spoiling for all evening. Honorable mention: “It’s Miller Time.” Time to knock off at 5:00, lest my boss get a nanosecond of work out of me that I don’t owe him (one ad in this series actually showed the clock reading five after five as the boys file into the bar), and head for the nearest watering hole to get plowed with my mates so I don’t have to face my shrew of a wife sober.

4. Meisterbrau. Mercifully extinct, but the basic pitch was “tastes as good as Budweiser, but cheaper!” So does tap water.

3. Keystone. “Bitter beer face” hasn’t yet entered the language, which I can’t say for “I love you man” and “Whassup,” but the commercials are still running. We aren’t out of the woods yet.

2. Tequiza. Not on TV, but all over Manhattan billboards and subways. “I’m only laughing cause you’re my boss.” I’m a pathetic corporate suckbutt who feels the need to ingratiate himself with my superiors to keep a job I hate anyway. “No, they aren’t real, so what.” Yes, I elected surgery to increase my appeal to that special class of men who like their mammaries really, really large. You got a problem with that?

1. Budweiser. It’s unpatriotic not to drink Budweiser, I’m pretty sure. (Bud Lite may be OK with a note from your bartender.) At the very least the Clydesdales aren’t going to parade through the picturesque little town that you live in, nosiree.

*Liquid Crystal Display.

Aug 142002

To the Reader

Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
In commentary,

For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text,

And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

–J.V. Cunningham

Aug 142002

Christopher Hitchens has replied to the notorious “Comrade Hitchens!” letter with which Martin Amis ends Koba the Dread. I was no fan of Koba, but Hitchens is awfully slippery, essentially accusing Amis of lacking irony and humor and taking it too easy on the numerous enemies of human freedom that preceded Stalin, while failing to acknowledge that none of them murdered remotely on his scale. He also adduces a few leftists who objected to Stalinism early on as if that sufficiently justified the many who ignored and excused it. And the song and dance about how things would have turned out fine for Russia if only Lenin and Trotsky had succeeded in 1905, as if Stalinism were a product of the First World War: please. Hitchens nonetheless is always a pleasure to read, and he does score a few direct hits, as Anne Applebaum points out.