Visiting Arlington Makes One Remember

Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and sobering place. There are many picturesque sites, and I spent the morning yesterday wandering around on a terrifically sunny and blue-sky-day to enjoy the scenery. Enjoy, perhaps, isn’t the correct word. One can enjoy a walk in the sun, but how does one enjoy a walk through a cemetery like Arlington. So many thoughts, both past and present. So much gravitas.

Think about the number of prayers represented by the thousands of graves neatly aligned throughout the rolling hillside. How many women stood with their aprons on, washing dishing, looking out their kitchen windows, trying to get a mental glimpse of husbands and sons, neighbors and cousins, who were fighting over there. How many sleepless nights, how many wiped tears, how many mental breakdowns are represented by each of those white stone markers? The fortitude needed to carry-on on the homefront is represented well here. The amount is tremendous.

Most of the gravesites in Arlington are the same. This is a terrible injustice, not the commemoration, though, that is done well. It’s only an injustice because there simply was no tangible way to make the young men and women who sacrificed their lives or gave their time a monument to show their differences. You cannot clad a personality on a gravestone. Not in Arlington. And so in death, they rest peacefully in uniformity, and that is perhaps how they would most like it, buried with their comrades, shoulder to shoulder, bound together with a common purpose, a mutual goal, an understanding of what must take place to preserve the country back home they hold so dear.

Your sacrifices are not forgotten. This cemetery stands as a national remembrance of what it is that we collectively stand for. Each white-washed stone adds to the chorus of the past which pleads with us today to not forget the battles fought, the lessons learned, the courage expended, the freedom preserved. Each one beseeches the powers that be and the people on main street to look past what divides us and remember the heart of Arlington which unites us all. The commonality must be stronger than the division or we as a nation will waft in whatever prevailing political wind happens to be in town across the Potomac. We’ll be left adrift without a moral compass to guide us and not a soul to pity us.

Advertisements

Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

We Need More Booker T. Washington

As a history teacher, I made sure to excerpts from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” into the curriculum. It is of course a fascinating and enlightening study of one boy’s rise out of slavery to become one of the foremost scholars and respected leaders in American history. Now his views did not come about without criticism. One must read W.E.B. Du Bois and his criticisms of Washington to get a well-rounded view that the black community of the turn of the 20th century was not a monolithic one. But nonetheless, Washington’s insight is unique and even timely in this day and age. Here is a public domain excerpt of chapter 6 of his autobiography. It’s a fascinating view of how blacks and native Americans mixed shortly after the end of the Civil War. Thoughts?

from chapter 6 “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington:

On going to Hampton, I took up my residence in a building with about seventy-five Indian youths. I was the only person in the building who was not a member of their race. At first I had a good deal of doubt about my ability to succeed. I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery – a thing which the Indian would never do. The Indians, in the Indian Territory, owned a large number of slaves during the days of slavery. Aside from this, there was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure. All this made me proceed very cautiously, for I felt keenly the great responsibility. But I was determined to succeed. It was not long before I had the complete confidence of the Indians, and not only this, but I think I am safe in saying that I had their love and respect. I found that they were about like any other human beings; that they responded to kind treatment and resented ill-treatment. They were continually planning to do something that would add to my happiness and comfort. The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.

Facebook Fatigue

I used to love Facebook.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, its become toxic.

Why can’t we be friends without discussing politics? Please, add as many cat memes as possible, but is it really the place to be discussing immigration policy?

And yet, I find myself commenting on any number of threads. I cannot not comment. Especially after I sine the inane comments, the misinformation, the outright falsehoods, and the mystifying beliefs which are not based on any facts whatsoever.

Or at least that’s from my own point of view. And everyone else has their own point of view. A billion points of view which are based and shaped by those other billion people turn out to be not so helpful after all.

And so I wonder why I continue to be a Facebook warrior. Why can’t I let people wallow in their own incompetence. I’m sure they let me wallow in mine. Why can’t I let a snide comment go? Why do I have to add to the toxic environment? Why do I insist on mindlessly scrolling through everyone else’s political comments knowing I’ll simply think they are idiots. (as they think the same as me) Why? Why? Why?

The better question is: why don’t I quit Facebook?

I do wish someone would pay me to be a truth warrior on Facebook, countering every false meme and ridiculous comments with obnoxious statements based on fact and actual research. I could spend a year on my own newsfeed countering the misinformation. Anyone want to sponsor me? $50,000 should do it. I will make you proud. I’ll produce quotes, facts, laws, research, history, and common sense to defend those who blast against the decency of truth. I’ll do it. I have a computer and I’m willing to use it.

Facebook has put me on the edge. But I’m not likely to jump anytime soon. I’ll probably keep my scrolling habits in place. Unfortunately.

Facebook fatigue is a real thing. And I live there.

 

Trump’s Order on Immigration: Constitutional or Not?

Trump’s executive order on immigration has set the Internet afire in a dizzying array of memes and vitriolic rants about the president’s bold actions. Those who are dishonest will call it a “Muslim ban” predicated on religion. Of course, that’s absurd for those who actually read the executive order. On the other side,  Trump’s supporters defend all his actions in the name of national security. Well, I’m hoping I can cut through the emotion in this order and take a closer look to see if this executive action will pass the constitutional muster.

The order does several things, mainly suspending the refugee immigration program for 120 days and banning immigration from seven countries for 90 days until procedures and protocols for extreme vetting can be verified to the administration’s satisfaction. These are not unprecedented actions as other presidents have temporarily suspended immigration from certain  countries over the years. The New York Times has called the order unconstitutional on the grounds of a 1965 law which prohibits immigration discrimination from specific countries. But the NYT has not been known to look at nuances in regards to issues it doesn’t agree with, so take their view with a grain of salt.

Where this issue becomes interesting and problematic for Trump is in regards to the widely reported detention of certain immigrants or travelers, if you will, from the stated seven countries who had previously been granted visas. A federal judge in New York has ruled that their rights have possibly been violated. The judge may have a point, even a constitutional one. There’s one constitutional clause which prohibits Congress from enacting any law retroactively. That is, if it passes a new tax law today, they can’t say it’s effective starting January of 2016. That would be unconstitutional. Likewise, a logical argument could be made that executive orders are bound by the same principle, and therefore, by extension, anyone granted a visa prior to the issuing of the order would not be affected by the order.

However, this too is problematic, because the executive branch has been given a lot of leeway in regards to  national security.  It can terminate the visa of anyone at any moment if they feel that person poses a threat to security. So what’s not clear, and what the courts may have to sort out is at what point is a blanket order like this valid in regards to those previously given the green light into the country?

On Saturday night, a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security stated that green card holders from those seven countries were not being stopped by immigration. If that is indeed the case, that would be a smart move by the Trump administration. I do not know what rules the DHS were given in carrying out this order, but it does seem to be a little haphazard at this time, which is never a good thing in the age of Twitter. And when that happens, unfortunately, innocent people get caught in the middle.

I think it’s clear that Trump has the authority to block entry into the US based upon national security interests, even if it targets certain countries. It is also clear that the courts have leeway to curtail and adapt that order based upon legal precedent and constitutional law.

Of course, people have to make up their own mind whether or not they agree with the president’s actions. I think, however, we can all agree that Trump’s presidency is not lacking in the controversy category.

Democracy Hits Back

With the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States this weekend, democracy has officially hit back!

The U.S. political landscape has always been a see-saw affair, with one party pulling one direction for a while until the other party swings back with a vengeance. It is in this give and take that we find our true democracy. No side of the political spectrum has ever or will ever monopolize the political discourse, and it’s probably a good thing.

Now, before you ask if democracy actually won in this election cycle because Clinton received more votes than Trump, let me dispel that right away. Democracy did win, because the United States is a state-by-state democracy. Democracy won in enough states to secure the victory for Trump. If you say it doesn’t seem fair, I would take you back to the 1960 World Series when the New York Yankees trounced the Pirates 56-27 over a seven game series. However, the Pirates won the series 4-3 by winning four games. The overall score is meaningless in American politics. It’s the way the founding fathers wanted it, and it’s a pretty clever system to distribute power throughout the county so everyone has a say.

Now that that is settled, let’s get back to the victory for democracy. Eight years of Obama leading the nation to the left will be followed by Trump leading us somewhere else. We will have to see where that is because no one knows for sure.

Obama’s election was a shift to the left from eight years of GW Bush. Bush was a shift right (in some respects) from 8 years of Clinton (who was fairly centrist in many respects). Clinton’s victory in 1992 was a shift left from the Reagan and Bush years of 1981-1993.

If you go back further in time, Harding, then Coolidge, righted the ship in the 1920s after Woodrow Wilson’s grand overtures overseas. That was followed up by Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 which dramatically shifted the country left as the country sought relief from the crippling depression.

When a democracy shifts suddenly, it’s working. That means everyone has a seat at the table and everyone’s voice is being heard. Is it a slip-shod way to run a government? Sure is, but it’s much more preferable to an authoritarian alternative.

When you welcome Trump into the White House, whether you like him personally or not, you are welcoming a properly functioning democracy.

And that’s a very good thing.

 

Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiot” Article

I just came across this article today. It’s terrific on many different levels, and I was happy to see that it can be re-published by anyone if it is in its entirety and specifically mentions that it’s an excerpt from the book “Skin in the Game.” Duly noted. This article, in a way, reminds me of an educational video on China I watched a number of years ago. It showed how the Communist party was allowing free elections on the local level in some communities. The election in question pitted a honest, hard-working female incumbent mayor against her challenger, a rich garlic grower. The challenger touted two qualifications for the job: he was rich and he was a man. Well, the election was a landslide for the incumbent mayor. The real folks, the peasant farmers had common sense and knew clearly which of the two candidates was the best leader for them. During this election process, one of the Communist party brass said in an interview that the Chinese government could not allow the entire nation to choose the country’s leaders with one check mark on a piece of paper. There were two many educational and socio-economic differences. Translation: “poor people are stupid, they might vote us out of office.” Elitism at its best. Enjoy the following article.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot  by Nassim Taleb

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their image-oriented minds scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.


The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in most countries, the government’s role is between five and ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and is rarely seen outside specialized outlets, think tanks, the media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many openings for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only did he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, election forecasting models, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

The IYI is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist he uses statistics without knowing how they are derived (like Steven Pinker and psycholophasters in general); when in the UK, he goes to literary festivals; he drinks red wine with steak (never white); he used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; he takes statins because his doctor told him to do so; he fails to understand ergodicity and when explained to him, he forgets about it soon later; he doesn’t use Yiddish words even when talking business; he studies grammar before speaking a language; he has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; he has never read Frederic Dard, Libanius Antiochus, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, Amianus Marcellinus, Ibn Battuta, Saadiah Gaon, or Joseph De Maistre; he has never gotten drunk with Russians; he never drank to the point when one starts breaking glasses (or, preferably, chairs); he doesn’t even know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba (which in Brooklynese is “can’t tell sh**t from shinola”); he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics.

He knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.

Not a IYI

Postscript

From the reactions to this piece, I discovered that the IYI has difficulty, when reading, in differentiating between the satirical and the literal.

PostPostcript

The IYI thinks this criticism of IYIs means “everybody is an idiot”, not realizing that their group represents, as we said, a tiny minority — but they don’t like their sense of entitlement to be challenged and although they treat the rest of humans as inferiors, they don’t like it when the waterhose is turned to the opposite direction (what the French call arroseur arrosé). (For instance, Richard Thaler, partner of the dangerous GMO advocate Übernudger Cass Sunstein, interpreted this piece as saying that “there are not many non-idiots not called Taleb”, not realizing that people like him are < 1% or even .1% of the population.)

Note: this piece can be reproduced, translated, and published by anyone under the condition that it is in its entirety and mentions that it is extracted from Skin in the Game.